It’s 2018, and thanks to the likes of Troye Sivan, Janelle Monáe, Hayley Kiyoko and Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, queer visibility in music is at peak. Cue then the return of Ssion (pronounced “shun”), otherwise known as the New York-based 37-year-old cult hero Cody Critcheloe, who has been out here making underground queer pop for the past two decades. So while we’re apparently living in the age of the pop twink, you could say Ssion is a kind of queer pop daddy.
Critcheloe himself is something of an audio-visual polymath. He’s a painter, has performed at MoMa, is responsible for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ iconic Fever To Tell album cover, and is probably best known as the visionary director behind genius music videos for the likes of Peaches (“Billionaire”), Perfume Genius (“Queen”) and Charli XCX (“Doing It”, as art director). Then there’s his work as Ssion, which began in Kansas City in 1999 with the self-released debut album, Fucked Into Oblivion, before spawning countless EPs, remixes, and mixtapes, leading us to the 2018 release of the third official Ssion abum, O (for optimistic, which to be honest is not easy to be in these messed up times).
Arriving seven years after the last Ssion album, O was co-produced by Sam Mehran, formerly one third of Test Icicles (along with Devonté Hynes), and Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy. Like all of Critcheloe’s work, O fucks hard with pop culture. It’s a collaged homage that recycles all of Critcheloe’s loves (primarily ’80s and ’90s pop culture, real divas and rock’n’roll) and vomits them back up into a gloriously unapologetic mess. It’s an album that tosses dance, pop, rock, and electro into a blender and makes a delicious art trash smoothie. The audio equivalent of glitter beards and leather jackets, diet coke and ketamine, played out to a mantra of peace love and cigarettes.
Ssion’s DIY ethics are still firmly intact on O, but they now come with added maximalist gloss. Although Critcheloe might be a devotee of incredible shiny pop hooks and 4/4 rhythm, he is also drawn to the dark side. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s lead single “Comeback”, which starts out as an irresistible Scissor Sisters-style pop cut but descends into a scuzzed out overdriven rave featuring nasty digital hardcore. It’s like there are two Ssion’s at work and in constant conflict, one is a Madonna fanboy, the other a Courtney Love stan and they’re battling each other for dominance of Critcheloe’s fleeting attention span across this record. There are times when this can be frustrating and it feels like someone’s switching the station in the middle of a song you’re really into, but it all still totally works. Although there’s a definite Riot Grrrl streak running through O, Madonna’s pop sensibilities really are an unmistakable influence all over this record. From the club pop of “Heaven Is My Thing Again”, to the album’s unabashed sexual energy on tracks like the subversive “Dogs On Asphalt”, with it’s talk of fucking disco balls and “Please please please let me be your puppy/don’t you wanna be my doggy?” lyrics that serve “Like a Virgin” style tongue-in-cheek.
O is a masterclass in the art of collaboration. Melissa Burns, Contessa Stuto and Jennifer Herrema show up for the Peaches-flavored “Dogs On Asphalt”, while pop music’s unsung genius Ariel Pink duets on the dreamy “At Least The Sky Is Blue”. Devendra Banhart features on “Free Lunch (Break)” and Roisin Murphy even does an arty-talky thing about “really losing yourself”, “less salad,” and Madonna still not paying off her student loans on “The Cruel Twirl”. Hole drummer Patty Schemel and Sky Ferreira are the album’s finest team effort on the rebellious anthem “1980-99”, a Top 40 banger that most pop stars can only dream of writing. With these guests in attendance, truly this is an unmissable party.
It’s worth remembering that O is not only an album, but an entire multimedia art project. Each track on the record is accompanied by multiple absurd and wonderful paintings, like the ones that come with “Marc & Me,” a track that imagines a night out with Marc Jacobs. Then there’s the self-directed music videos for “At Least the Sky is Blue”, which sees Critcheloe and Ariel Pink in costume as Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor respectively, and the Michel Gondry-esque “Comeback”. The visuals don’t stop there, with co-producer Sam Mehran telling Dazed that Critcheloe created moodboards to demonstrate the sounds he wanted to achieve on each track, “Each one would have, like, a picture of a few suave dudes hanging out at a party in the ’70s, next to a picture of a cow, next to a picture of an exploded car, next to a bowl of cocaine, next to Germs frontman Darby Crash, next to a picture of Liza Minnelli. He’d be like, ‘I know it seems crazy, but I want the songs to sound like this.’” All credit to Critcheloe, because that is exactly how these songs sound!
On the album’s dreamy opening number, Ssion promises to “build a dream for you as big as I can dream” and he really does. O is pop punk that celebrates ugliness and the alternative, a kind of queercore statement that sets the bar high and says this is how it’s done baby. If Troye Sivan is the queer pop twink your mum can bop along to in the car, Ssion is the ‘what the hell are you listening to?’ record that your parents would confiscate. It’s the soundtrack to an imaginary Gregg Araki movie that should come with a bottle of poppers and free stickers saying “bite me” and “what’s your damage?” Pump it up, put it on repeat and kill some time at Club Ssion while you wait for the world to end.