If pop was punk

Pop music, historically the music of choice for teenage girls, is often boy-fixated. However, Carla Bozulich’s Boy (released 4 March) is definitely not The Shirelles’ ‘Soldier Boy’ or Avril Lavigne’s ‘Sk8tr Boy’. The singer has described the release as her “pop” album but this is pop by the way of Throbbing Gristle, not the Beatles. ‘One Hard Man’ may have a middle eight that runs “No, no, no” but it’s delivered staccato rather than in a Dawn Penn swoon. Songs like ‘Drowned to the Light’ plunge into PJ Harvey territory; Harvey fans will find these twisted ballads delectable, as will fans of Diamanda Galas’ pop covers album Guilty Guilty Guilty. It’s a similarly tangential take, like a classic Disney villainess playing the princess. Perhaps, in an ideal world, Boy would be the soundtrack to the forthcoming Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie.

With artists such as Janelle Monae pushing pop in epic directions, musically and lyrically, the time seems right for Bozulich to do the same. While Monae, Lady Gaga and others have drawn on the performance art/sound installation universe to inform their genre-bending sound, Bozulich actually comes from that scene, making a series of site-specific large-scale performances under the umbrella name of ‘Eyes For Ears‘. Boy could be heard as a follow-up to 2000’s event ‘Fake Party’ – “new music dressed up like a party, meets a social event disguised as art,” in the artist’s words – at which Bozulich lip-synched to old pop songs for the assembled guests.

This is pop as if there’d been an explosion of post-Joy Division female-fronted no-wave/post-punk bands singing about pirates

Coming out of the noise/industrial scene, Bozulich returns here to the chart-assaulting ambitions of the three-minute punk songs that she says “resuscitated” her as a teenager. This is pop as if there’d been an explosion of post-Joy Division female-fronted no-wave/post-punk bands singing about pirates, as on the track ‘Lazy Crossbones’. This is pop as dreamed of in the utopian moment when the Sichel Sisters’ film All Over Me was staging teenage love as swaying arm in arm with your girlfriend to Mary Timony. You could say it’s “pop as it should be”: headphone-friendly songs you’ll find yourself adding to mixtapes (OK, playlists) for friends going through break-ups or breakdowns.

Listeners might find Boy spacey and spare compared to the full-throated, full-body-immersion of Bozulich’s best-known project Evangelista. Although not entirely “solo” – John Eichenseer (JHNO) provides support throughout – it has a different energy from the back-and-forth rhythmic exchanges between Bozulich and her Evangelista bassist Tara Barnes. Boy is more of an echo chamber, a suite of confessions and meditations spoken in the dead of night, dissociating and free associating in strange hotel rooms. The record was written and recorded while on tour with JHNO and it has a distanced feeling, a neo-noir invocation of non-places where desire and death meet. That’s no less than you’d expect from an artist who performed Brecht and Weill’s ‘The Ballad of the Lily of Hell’ at Patti Smith’s invitation.

By track five, ‘Gonna Stop Killing’, we know we’re in Lynchian territory: woozy bass topped with music-box like shimmering, plucked strings suggest the resolution to stop killing might not be that firm; the boy of the album’s title might want to start running. ‘What Is It Baby’ is like Julee Cruise cruising the low registers, following its crooned assertion “We live in the trees” with some eerie “oooooing” like a bad wind coming. The rising cymbals on closer ‘Number X’ (yes, it’s the 10th track and Bozulich is witty as well as witchy) have a similarly heart-twisting effect. “Don’t blow me out / before I’ve finished burning” she pleads in her shivery delivery.

Bozulich brings the destructive logic of these supposedly romantic songs to the fore by reversing the gender dynamics

Bozulich has also experimented with alt-country, including a track-by-track re-recording of Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’. The patina’d shimmer of ‘Appalachia’ is more present here than in pitch-perfect shiny AutoTuned pop. Like Harvey and Kristin Hersh on Hersh’s murder ballads album Murder, Misery and then Goodnight, Bozulich brings the dark and destructive logic that haunts many of these supposedly romantic songs to the fore – not least by reversing the gender dynamics. ‘Don’t Follow Me’ could be read as an anti-‘Every Breath You Take’, opening with a deconstructed 1980s drum beat that underlines Bozulich’s imprecation to an ex-lover: “untie the ropes / you’re no longer tied to me.” In the reversal, there’s a release. One can imagine playing this down the phone to a persistent pest and them un-persisting. There’s a sense of genuine threat and it’s exhilarating.

As on Evangelista records, Bozulich wields her powerful voice in a near-monotone, made more intriguing by its changing relation to the instrumental track, sometimes almost merging, sometimes high and echoey in the mix. Her delivery is pointed and dramatic as well, as in ‘Deeper Than the Well’, where the stress falling heavily on “fuck” gives a rich ambiguity to the line “I just wanna fuck / up the whole world.”

Despite the presence of a track called ‘Danceland’, its Laurie Anderson vibe shifting into a more arm-waving chorus, these songs are unlikely to set the dancefloor alight – but that repeated line from ‘Deeper Than the Well’ will earworm you on the night bus for sure. Altogether now, under our breath at 2 am, “I just wanna fuck / up the world…”

Image description:

Carla Bozulich onstage at the Constellation fifteenth anniversary event, 24 November 2012. She looks down at her guitar with a slight smile and a look of concentration. Her right hand is raised and the microphone is level with the top of her head. She wears a dark orange shirt with a short dark brown tie with yellow dots. By UT Connewitz, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Sophie Mayer is co-editor of Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot and poet in residence at Archive of the Now, where she is teaching herself Audacity with the wild hope of one day making a feminist sound poetry installation…