There may only be a few statements that Sophie Kemp gets right in her pearl-clutching, stiflingly conservative and puritanical review of this new Cigarettes After Sex album, Cry, but it’s an important one:
There is a universe where this raciness could conceivably offer a reprieve from indie rock’s occasional prudishness.
But while this declaration rings true on its own, what Kemp really seems to be implying is that the “universe” in question is somehow not the one we’re living in. Which is flat out incorrect. Sheer cultural propaganda. Much like how 2019 music critics definitively proclaim “Rock Is Dead” while continuing to review dozens of guitar bands per week or how the mainstream press told us there was no conceivable way Trump could win the 2016 election, the results just don’t support Kemp’s smirking pronouncements. And as Pitchfork darling Jay Z is so fond of saying, “numbers don’t lie.”
Released last Friday, all ten tracks on Cry are doing viral hip-hop-style numbers on Spotify, Apple Music, etc. etc. etc. There isn’t a single song that doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of Spotify streams alone, with “Heavenly” coming in at over 7 million and rising and “Falling In Love” over 3 million. And the respective videos for these tracks? Head on over to Youtube and see those millions of views stacking up. When the Billboard charts are released later this week, there’s little doubt this record will be well into the top 20 albums in the country. Quite possibly even the top ten. And this isn’t including Europe where this band is even more massive, where they play major venues like The Olympia in Paris and sell them out within mere hours. In today’s context, Cry is about as close as a traditional rock record gets to being a massive success.
So that “universe” Kemp seems to imply doesn’t exist? It’s this one that we’re living in.
And then there’s this:
It feels almost like a novelty these days for a dude to write an album entirely about being extremely horny. Men don’t make music about sex the way they used to.
Has Kemp listened to an R&B, hip-hop, or pop album recently?
To her credit, not all of Kemp’s wild moral flailings are so blatantly and statistically untrue. The first of the following two sentences, for example, is mostly right, while the second only rings false for those capable of ingesting art without a staunch, pre-set ideological mindframe.
People have more or less collectively agreed that rendering women as pure sex objects in music doesn’t need to happen so much anymore. Greg Gonzalez, the frontman of the noir dream-pop band Cigarettes After Sex, must not have gotten the memo.
More or less, that first sentence is fortunately on the mark (once again as long as we aren’t counting hip hop, metal, etc. etc. etc., but hey she’s covering an indie band here give her a break). But has Greg Gonzalez of Cigarettes After Sex really not received that particular memo? Is this record truly, in Kemp’s words, “a 41-minute dream about Penthouse pets and women in silken underthings, filtered through chiaroscuro and top-shelf whiskey”? Well, interpretation of a piece of art is in the eye of the beholder, but a Robin Thicke record Cry is most certainly not. “41 minutes of wounded, dreamy, haunted heartbreak dream pop” would be a more apt description, or as The Independent puts it, “Greg Gonzalez explores love in all it’s forms on this cinematic album”. So why are these two reviews so strikingly different? How does The Independent see an exploration of all things love and heartbreak where Kemp sees nothing but crass objectification and “banal and pornographic” lyrics, and was left “feeling nothing, other than perhaps blunted anger”?
The explanation is simple. Kemp came into this review with her mind made up. She was ready to take a hard swing at something, in this case an artist who is known to write lyrics about actual sexual intercourse. This isn’t, after all, the dancing days of Zeppelin and The Stones. College educated white boys makin’ noize are expected to toe that line. But much like Spinal Tap once observed “There’s a fine line between sexy and sexist” from the wrong side of that particular fence, one really has to ask the following: Is simply singing about sex sexist? is singing about someone’s beauty objectification? And if not, then what has led Kemp to such a conservative, Dan-Quayle-Meets-PMRC mindframe? And why does she have to drag poor Serge Gainsbourg up from his Gitanes-scented grave in order to make her point?
Some of these questions are answered in Kemp’s punches at a seemingly harmless track called “Kiss It Off Me”. To my ears, and to nearly every Metacritic-approved writer who reviewed this album (7.2 out of 10 overall score), this sounds like a lush pop ditty about a fully consensual casual affair where the protagonist feels something deeper for a person who doesn’t quite love him back, instead opting to head off to the gym and on with her life. “If you’re gonna’ break my heart, this is a good start” Gonzales croons in a wounded tenor. And yet, in Kemp’s estimation this is nothing different than the latest Lil Pump banger. “If there is anything romantic about this encounter, it is washed away by the song’s utter inability to deviate from overused ’90s pastiche—or, more importantly, to represent the woman in question as anything other than some chick who loves to work out and have sex.” It’s this oversimplification of something that was already quite simple that seems to reveal the deck was stacked against Gonzalez from the very start for his big Pitchfork review. He could have put out the modern day “Unchained Melody” and this review would have been no different.
Kemp fares far better when she sticks to what she enjoys and doesn’t enjoy about the music. This is, after all, a music review and not an ideological battleground or a pulpit. And Kemp is no doubt a fine music critic if you delve into her works. Flashes of that do show up here between all the hand wringing, making this review even more disappointing considering what it could have been. If you really want to bury Gonzalez, after all, then hit him where it hurts; call his music antiseptic and boring.
You could lose yourself in the sound, if losing yourself is akin to collapsing on an overly plush bed.
Now that’s something that will make the guy sit up in his (no doubt overly plush) bed at night. “Is my new record overproduced? Does it lack real hooks and rely on gauzy, studio-generated atmospherics as a crutch?” You aren’t going to get anywhere going all evangelical moral panic on the lyrics, but asking why such a borderline bland sound causes so much excitement in the indie world these days and what that means for current music as a whole? Now that’s a question worth asking.
While holding a magnifying glass over sex-positive lyrics and wagging a shaking finger is never a good look, it always pays dividends to point out disconnects between lyrics and the music which carries them. For example, the finest dagger of the entire shebang is unjustly buried toward the end of the review:
The sound of the song is as delicate as an antique plate gathering dust on a shelf: High notes on electric guitars are languidly plucked, and the bassline is a slow IV drip that gives you goosebumps. Then there’s the question of Gonzalez’s voice, a truly lovely and androgynous tenor that’s wasted on lines like these.
With just a few tweaks, this could very well have been the leadoff paragraph to one fine classic Pitchfork slam review. Good voice. Goosebump potential. But overproduced and with lame lyrics that weigh the whole project down. This is how you slam an album, not by getting all Reagan values about the content but by going straight for any piece of art’s jugular: the artistry itself.
Instead, Kemp really throws some bizarre stretches out there, particularly toward the end of the review when she loses all semblance of “I’m reviewing a record” and starts flinging about singular accusations that simply aren’t backed up in any way, shape, or form by the music at hand. “It presents a vision of sex that comes from surfing Pornhub after school before your parents get home from work, and from looking at pictures of minimally clad Instagram influencers while waiting in line to get a flu shot.” Now, listeners can have all sorts of unique takes on a batch of songs, but man I listened quite carefully to this entire record and, other than a song that uses hentai as a metaphor for a doomed modern romance, there’s no mention of Insta perving at Duane Reade or goin’ Pornhubin’ after school. And it’s not just me. Not one of the 11 official Metacritic-listed reviews other than this one has anywhere near a similar interpretation. It’s fine to call a record “soulless and Styrofoam” if that’s what you’re hearing, but to accuse such a blatantly harmless piece of dream pop romanticism, no matter the inherent problems with it, of belonging to the same “objectify and despise” category as the latest Juice Wrld release just because it tackles sexual themes is to gift true douchebag culture the camouflage it needs to perpetuate.
Sophie Kemp may be hitting out at someone or something with this review, but it sure isn’t Greg Gonzalez and his new Cigarettes After Sex album.