Simon Curtis uploads on us
Simon Curtis's goal in life is to become a popstar. I think the 24-year-old dynamo has wanted this more than anything since at least the days when *NSYNC roamed the earth, and I'm certain he was most urgently spurred on by the rise and rise and fall and fall and rise of Britney Spears. Don't hold that against him; he's better than his #1 idol, even if he would be loath to admit it. But being better, being good, is no guarantee in the world of pop—the right look, luck, connections, hard work, timing and an unquantifiable X factor are at least as important as talent. Talent is almost an embarrassment of riches if you have several or all of the others.
I go way back with Simon Curtis, back to his original name, back to when he lived in Oklahoma (he's now "too left for Oklahoma, too right for L.A., just right"), back to when he was 18 and entered a contest in the magazine I was editing. The contest was called "Get Famous" and promised one male and one female winner a chance to be flown to Orlando to meet with and perform for pop mega-producer Johnny Wright. Not too many boys entered, maybe because at the time every male who could sing or dance was already in a boy band, but it didn't matter—Curtis's entry (which I still have) clearly revealed his was a winning package. It was a package sporting several of those aforementioned important traits for pop success plus the icing on the cake—talent.
The prize was fulfilled, though I question how beneficial it was for him. Maybe it gave him a taste of winning against long odds...but then he'd probably already learned that lesson by beating leukemia as a child after being given only a 50% chance of survival. But I think listening to Max Martin over and over had more to do with nurturing his creativity.
Over the years, I've stayed in touch with Curtis and both encouraged and critiqued him. My criticism of his early songs that he'll remember involved his using too many 25-cent words, which is a good problem to have because it means you're smarter than your chosen medium. Mostly I've assumed he would "make it" at some point, and while I've done my part, Simon's not someone to sit around and wait for things to be done for him. As much faith as I've always had in his talent, I've been as amazed as some of his doubters by just how successful he's been—he moved to L.A., persevered through some management issues, hooked up with a producer, released an EP (the purposely and purposefully titled Alter Boy), did some fairly high-profile acting and eventually, earlier this year, found himself spending 13 frantic days writing and recording his album 8Bit Heart "in a tiny basement in the hills of West Virginia."
The album is available for free download by clicking here and has already attracted high-profile attention, including a rave from Pop Reviews Now, a Larry Flick interview, a campaign by Lady GaGa's monsters to get her to listen to it and a Tweet by Adam Lambert proclaiming it to be "sick!" followed by an invitation for Curtis to write on his next CD.
I mention my history with Curtis by way of full disclosure. He is my friend and I do want him to do well. But I will just review his record as if I didn't know the guy. Or rather, as if I didn't know him personally but knew he'd be reading this—which is how I review everything anyway, come to think of it.
The most impressive of several impressive things about 8Bit Heart, at least to me, is the fact that Curtis has produced—with the assistance of his creative partner Jeff Wells—a concept album and has executed it as such from start to finish, from cover (shot by photographic trending topic Tyler Shields) to homemade PR campaign. His inspiration is drawn from 8Bit video games of yesteryear, particularly their charmingly antiquated view of the future and of robotics. Like Lady GaGa, Curtis has a character, the "Boy Robot" of the first track (not song) who "was made not created" and who "could not understand...what could be more simple than to love and be loved in return." Unlike Lady GaGa, Curtis is not walking performance art—his character lives only in the grooves. (Or would if there still were.)
After the tone-setting "Boy Robot" is the plaintive electro plea "Don't Wanna Be Alone," which is as catchy as anything you've heard on the radio recently (it'll be a draw when you eventually hear this on the radio).
"Listen to me/I don't wanna be alone/I'm gonna find someone/I swear the fire will never grow cold."
Over the years when I wasn't paying attention, songwriter Simon (he wrote everything on the album, sharing co-writing credits on only one of the 11 tracks) has gotten very good at the economy of self-expression. This translates to a collection of songs that average about three minutes in length—he rarely needs four minutes to save the world and only uses up 2:25 on "Don't Wanna Be Alone," a song that works perfectly in reference to love even if it sounds to me like it could also be about an ambitious talent seeking an audience.
The most fun to be had on the record has to be "Fell in Love w/an Android," a giddily bitchy put-down of a cold lover that opens with a C3PO quote and floats on a wash of video-game cues:
"Nothing in your eyes that I can see/Time to shut the power down and let me be/Try to play it like you think you're something so hot/Hate to say it, but I'd rather fuck a robot."
One of the tracks that seems to have the biggest following out of the gate is "Super Psycho Love," which has a quasi-Middle Eastern opening enhanced by Curtis's falsetto (which rears its pretty head more prominently later on the next song). Sex sells but love sells more and infectious beats sell most of all—this has all three.
The title track follows at a right angle, veering from the experienced yet still game-sounding narrator of the previous few songs into the voice of an uncomplicated robot boy whose heart is about as complex as Pong.
"Is it so, so wrong to love and to be loved in return?" he queries over and over in a Smokey Robinson falsetto. The production is everything on this one—as written and even as sung, it might have come off as a boy-band ballad (or a bonus track from his past TV project Spectacular!). Elsewhere, the production feels heavy to me, gimmick-dependent. Here, it feels surgically correct, even if the beauty of the song falls short of self-realizing, perhaps due to the repetitive lyrics. "8Bit Heart" is the perfect title but not the perfect song; it feels more like a really promising, nearly-there blueprint than the finished thought most of the other tracks certainly are.
The longest song at 4:30, "Diablo" was one of the first songs Curtis sent me to listen to. I thought it sounded polished and professional (which is really almost all one is aiming for with the average self-released record, of which 8Bit Heart isn't an example) but I didn't clutch it to my heart as I'd hoped because it is also undeniably a Britney Spears demo—it would blow my mind more if her people didn't buy it for her to use than if they did.
"You're the devil, you're a filthy piece of trash/Gotta brush you off my shoulder, gonna let you kiss my ass."
On successive listens, what works so well is that unlike Spears—who is as unconvincing on her aggressive tracks as they are successful in the clubs—Curtis means what he wrote and what he sings. One thing that's appealing about his appearance, aside from the fact that he's cute as a button, is that like a twink who turns out to be a voracious top, Curtis is a contradiction. He looks harmless but is harmful. He's no teddy bear—and by that I mean he has a needle-sharp point of view, is a gleeful provocateur and probably wouldn't forgive you right away if you were unkind to him, not even (especially?) if Oprah begged. As a writer, his cursive is subversive.
After an annoyingly Janet Jacksonesque minute-long spoken-word interstitial that at least has the good taste to reference Limahl's "Never-Ending Story" while it loyally name-checks his posse, we're back on track with the pretty-sounding but poisonous "Delusional," the song that best personifies Curtis's anti-teddy vibe.
"Delusional" is the closest in sound to his earlier work and has fangs out for the past, dedicated to "all the people who've been trying to keep me down/Got their fingers in my collar trying to turn me all around." Instead of just attacking his detractors as anyone would, future- (and futuristic-) minded Curtis relishes the fact that he is going to make good on his promise. Just like all those rappers who sing of all the bling-bling their success has earned them on songs written and recorded pre-fame, Curtis broadcasts a cheeky confidence that should go a long way toward programming his desired band of robot fans. (Who needs unpredictable monsters? One can't keep track of where the wild things are, but robots can be remotely controlled.)
The closest thing to filler on the album is "Joystick," a nonetheless spirited ode to Atari's phallus and its ability to seduce multiple players.
Curtis is back to higher ground with the frenetic "Beat Drop," which makes use of a crazy operatic vocal riff (edit: It's not a sample from The Fifth Element but is from Mozart's The Magic Flute) while extolling the virtues of the almighty beat over "some motherfuckin' band." GaGa's "Bad Romance" gets a loving reference, and she might be behind the following song, "Brainwash," in which our hero is "captivated by The Fame."
But "Brainwash" disappoints me because it unintentionally reads too easily as an undercover, far-right condemnation of President Obama who, you will recall, has been as demonized for his celebrity as GaGa has celebrated hers.
WTF? Well, the song samples G. Edward Griffin's infamous 1980s interview with Yuri Bezmenov/Tomas Schuman, a Soviet defector who argued that Marxism (another accusation the-actually-not-liberal-enough-for-me-thank-you prez has weathered) is introduced not via espionage but via "demoralization, destabilization, crisis, normalization." Any positive incorporation of Bezmenov's words is chilling to me—he makes Glenn Beck look warm, cuddly and cognizant. Check out his insane book Love Letter to America (sounds nicer than it is), which is like a giant steaming bowl of conspiracy-theory borscht. He believes "destablization" is achieved, in part, by stressing unimportant issues like equal pay for women and gay rights.
Curtis's fascination with conspiracy theories (the Illuminati) is well documented, so I wish he'd not used this particular sample—it sounds terrific and works with the song, but it's impossible to use a speaker's words without owning the context. (Imagine an awesome dance song propelled by the wisdom of Ann Coulter or the moderate musings of Michael Moore and you might catch my drift.)
So for me, "Brainwash" sounds more Tea Party than tea party.
The final song is "The Dark," an exceptionally strong outsider anthem that could be about a misunderstanding or lack of empathy for spirituality as much as about robot boy's search for true love or about Simon Curtis's ups and downs in the entertainment industry. A lengthy sample (it's more than a sample, it's a big ol' taste) of Jay-Z fits perfectly and would probably earn the rap god's blessings, at least creatively. (He might have the urge to pass the collection plate, too!)
The album closes, as it began, with a simple narration, one that notes that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, something Whitney Houston might have been able to tell him over a game of Space Invaders back in the '80s, but of which we all need to be reminded from time to time.
In case you were wondering, I feel like this album works well for gay listeners, not only because it's a dancetastic debut by a cutie, but also because the theme of being alienated from love is one most if not all gay people go through at some point in their lives: "Is it so, so wrong to love?" And as a writer, Curtis has a gender-neutral take that makes all of his blips-and-bleeps-framed songs sound equally singable by AC or DC.
All of Curtis's inspirations are well represented on 8Bit Heart—Max Martin, Britney Spears, Lady GaGa, Jay-Z. But I think the most apt comparison is to Robyn, because with this album he's created a beats-driven imagining of what it would be like to be able to program feeling and emotion.
Comparisons aside, 8Bit Heart should present Curtis favorably to managers and/or labels as a potential solo star. It will also probably win him scores of fans, the first foot soldiers in a near-future robot army.