As my wife can confirm, I'm a sucker for gay love songs. The Pet Shop Boys, Jimmy Somerville, Shakespeare's Sonnets, it doesn't matter, they break my heart like nothing else.
So it's a treat to be able to review Corey Dargel's debut album, Less Famous than You, and I can tell you it doesn't disappoint. If you've already checked out the MP3s posted at Dargel's site Automatic Heartbreak you'll be familiar with his style – disarming vocals that wrestle with a complex, jittery keyboard clatter. Dargel trained at the Oberlin Conservatory, and his songs exhibit a craftmanship that probably reflects this, as well as a studied balance between the heart's instincts and the head's ironic assault on pop conventions. The effect could fail and sound both studious and twee. That it doesn't is due to three crucial elements – lyrics, melody and Dargel's voice.
It's the lyrics that first win you over. As Less Famous than You amply demonstrates, Dargel has a stand up's eye for life's mundane details, and these fill every line of this collection of love songs for 'famous (or semi-famous) people' (we never learn their names, but some of them are perfectly guessable). The juxtaposition of laconic humour and effusive sentiment is the most characteristic aspect of the album, and it works because like all the best jokes and ballads the delivery is never less than sincere. Singing about Chicago ('not as gay as they say') in 'Gay cowboys', Dargel includes the choice lines
The gay-affirmative Starbucks
Has lost its charm
The boyztown boys are all stuck up
Walking arm in arm
None of them can mount without using stirrups
And none grew up on a farmNot that we know how
To milk a cow
But you grew up in Colorado
And I grew up in Texas
And every boy in Chicago
Drives a Saab or a Lexus
'I don't remember', a nostalgic record of the mind's ageing closes with the lines
I used to love karaoke
I used to go out dancing
but these days I don't dance
and I can't sing I can't remember the words
and when I do they come out wrong
(In a characteristic touch, the individual lines of accompaniment all go slightly askew at this point.)
so if you know the next verse
it would help if you could sing along
If only. Dargel is a generous melodist, so much so that you won't catch all the tunes the first time around. In fact, you'll have job singing along even after the fifth or sixth listen to many of the songs on this album, because the music is so endlessly inventive that it never quite stays within your grasp. The effect is of an anti-singalong, the sort of thing Morrissey used to be adept at, in which by avoiding big choruses, simple melodies and straightforward rhythms the songs can never become victims to the congregation mentality of a crowd with its lighters in the air. Instead of providing a space for external group identification, the songs demand internalisation and individual attention.
The icing on this private cake is Dargel's voice. It has a close-mic'd, intimate sheen like someone whispering in your ear. You can't help but become involved in these songs, because they are being sung so directly to you, a snatched sharing of secrets in the noise of a crowded bar. The combined effect of words, music and voice is completely convincing, so that when you reach, at the very end of the record, two of the album's darkest and most elusive songs, 'Like a ghost', about a paranoid, sickly hypochondriac ('I've heard you cry from heartburn / I watched you conceal / everything I loved the most about you') and 'Every word means so much to me', about a poet's obsessive fan ('there's an archive named after you in Outlook … please get in touch with me'), you're sold.
Less Famous than You is out on 1st May on Use your teeth; Corey Dargel plays London's Luminaire Club on 10th May, alongside Final Fantasy, Grizzly Bear and Simon Bookish. (See Eat your own ears for details.)