Brannan expands his sound on ‘Rob Me Blind’
Does a queer singer have an obligation to sing only from and about the gay perspective? When Jay Brannan beautifully but blatantly sang about wanting to be a housewife in his 2009 debut goddamned, he was the Bob Dylan for gay men. But in subtle moments, he defies expectations in his sophomore release of original material, Rob Me Blind, but it’s still a thrilling listen. And don’t worry: He keeps it pretty gay.
Brannan has blasted “the gay label” as confining — that music should speak to all people. He backs that up with Blind’s first single, “Beautifully,” an observation on a jerky boyfriend and needy girlfriend. The guy wants a pretty lady; she just wants a chance. The dynamic is heartbreaking against a plucky sound with some wonderful strings added in.
The song is perfectly suited for radio, which may be some intention behind it, but how more interesting it would have been between two men or women? Brannan has sung about his insecurities before, so why go this route? The decision doesn’t take away from the song’s strengths, but a whisper of “what if” comes to mind as the song concludes.
We’re used to a minimalist Brannan delivering melodies with his voice and guitar only, but working with producer David Kahne, Brannan explores additional layers of instrumentation: drums, violins, even electric guitars. Together, the team has constructed a smartly balanced album that keeps Brannan’s usual feel with a broader sonic scope.
This is prominent in the wonderfully schizophrenic romp “La La La.” Starting with the tenderness of Simon and Garfunkel harmonies, a hard rock guitar riff shatters the apparent delicacy only to fade away. Horns reside in the background before a creepy orchestration akin to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score takes the guitar’s place in the next chorus. Brannan’s experimentation is fun and distracts just enough, but retains the song’s intention.
Brannan retreats into familiar territory with “Greatest Hits.” The arresting part is one particular stanza when he sings I don’t sing for the rainbow / Cuz I taste the rain / They spit “cheer up” and they scoff / I laugh “cheer down or fuck off” / Then get roughed up against the grain. The song itself is enigmatic in its message, but gay listeners will likely zero in on this line. There’s an unnerving defiance to the lyrics. Is Brannan feeling a pressure from his gay fans and their expectations, or is he really just ruffling feathers?
Perhaps he’s leaving those answers for his next album, but Brannan displays major growth in Blind and the 10 tracks touch on all spectrums of emotions from the delightful “The Spanglish Song” to the epic title track and even a slight knock at his own industry with “The State of Music” while also thanking his musical heroines Joni Mitchell, The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan and Dallasite Lisa Loeb (among others). The album’s final track “A Love Story,” most mirrors “Housewife” in its emotional truth. Heartbreak may be numbing, but by the end, the song’s revelation is that Now I believe in love / I’ll pin love down / I’ll make love see / Love better believe in me.
Rob Me Blind does its job in making us believe in Brannan’s growing talents.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 6, 2012.