Hercules and Love Affair
Hercules and Love Affair
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2008, Volume 15, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri November 21, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
Itís been a long time since an album like Hercules and Love Affairís self-titled debut has broken into the mainstream. After all, most openly gay artists typically have had a difficult time gaining acceptance. While certain old-school performers have managed to maintain their careers after declaring their sexual preferences ó Elton John, George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, and k.d. lang immediately spring to mind ó all of these artists also undeniably have not made their sexual preferences the focus of their work, which instead has been firmly entrenched in pop tradition.
Based in New York City, Hercules and Love Affair makes no apologies for its celebration of the gay lifestyle and culture. It takes only one trek through the groupís eponymous endeavor to realize that it has held nothing back in its desire to create an over-the-top, retro-inclined dance album that sounds like a lost, early-disco classic, with dollops of house and art-rock thrown into the mix. The band takes no prisoners as it embraces all of the baroque excesses of the club music scene of the late 1970s. Aspects of Kraftwerk-inspired techno and German pop opera (as championed by the late Klaus Nomi) combine to keep the project light and fun while still maintaining enough musical and intellectual integrity to satisfy fans of more serious fare.
Hercules and Love Affair is clearly a labor of love, and most people likely will be drawn to the album by the appearance of vocalist Antony Hegarty. Not only is he a Mercury Award-winning singer, but he also is able to give Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright a run for their money when it comes to range and vocal acrobatics. If he had not opted to broaden his horizons by pursuing projects outside his main gig with Antony and the Johnsons, it is doubtful that he would have gained a sizeable audience outside the fringes of popular culture.
Hegartyís delivery of If It Be Your Will in Iím Your Man, a film tribute to Leonard Cohen, surely rates as one of the greatest vocal performances of the century, thus far. Similarly, his ability to breathe new life into Bob Dylanís Knockiní on Heavenís Door, a highlight from the soundtrack to Iím Not There, is nothing short of a revelation. There is no one in the pop world today who can belt it out like Hegarty. When his vocal talents are combined with his penchant for staging, fashion design, and performance art, Hercules and Love Affair emerges as the most stylish and theatrical band in rock since David Bowie ventured on the road to support Young Americans in 1975.
Hercules and Love Affair is essentially the brainchild of Andrew Butler, a New York-based DJ who has been working in clubs since the age of 15. He is the person responsible for creating the sound over which Hegarty and Nomi Ruiz sing, and therefore, he should be held accountable for some of the criticisms that must be leveled against the eponymous album. Once the excitement, glitter, and novelty of the period-sounding disco endeavor have faded, one can begin to consider the songs on their own merit. Unfortunately, there is a certain sameness to many of the tracks, and this is a product of their arrangements.
Disco revivalism in itself is nothing new, and it isnít enough to sustain interest throughout the hour-long collection. Bands like Scissor Sisters ó which scored a hit by retooling Pink Floydís Comfortably Numb for the dance floor ó have already blazed a lot of the territory that Hercules and Love Affair explores on its self-titled debut. To be fair, this is a performance art project, and the touring group includes gay dancer Shayne Oliver and lesbian designer Kim Anne Foxmann as visual foils. Consequently, the best way to experience Hercules and Love Affair may be in a club setting rather than via a home stereo system.
Butlerís re-creation of disco and his attempt to recapture the mood of its alternative, underground years are certainly interesting and worthwhile at the outset. Yet, thereís something very calculated and self-conscious about the ambience created by Hercules and Love Affair, which makes the project rather grating. It is as easy to appreciate the campiness of the groupís approach as it is to lose patience with the drum machines and primitive synthesizers. What would have made a delightful single or EP just doesnít hold its ground for the duration of a full-length album. Attempts at revisiting an existing style can be admirable and breathtaking, but this approach alone provides a terrible foundation upon which to build a bandís reputation. As a result, Hercules and Love Affair runs the risk of sounding bloodless and inauthentic over the long haul.
Whenever the collective relaxes and tosses aside its preconceived script, it is easier to hear the magic that Hercules and Love Affair is capable of achieving. With its horn-splashed arrangement, Blind is a perfect example. Elsewhere, on songs like the industrial-edged Easy and the experimental album-closer True/False Fake/Real, the group plays with form, finds real emotion, and demonstrates that it has the chops as well as the ideas to do something a lot more interesting than its self-titled set otherwise intimates. In short, Hercules and Love Affair would do better to borrow more from the collaborations between Brian Eno and David Bowie than from Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Hegarty is a singer with few peers, and until he concocts another outing with Antony and the Johnsons, Hercules and Love Affairís eponymous endeavor will have to suffice. Fortunately, Blind is an extremely satisfying excursion. Then again, Hegarty could sing names out of the telephone book and make it sound extraordinary. He is that good.
Of Further Interest...
Hercules and Love Affair is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box