Simon Curtis: RA (Album Review)

For those of us who have been following Simon Curtis from the very early days of his career, RA is a pretty big deal.

I first heard Simon’s music in 2007, when the tracks that would later comprise his first EP, Alter Boy, began circulating online. Tracks like the bouncy “Put Your Makeup On” and Britney-referencing “Detox” grabbed my attention instantly. In 2010, Simon released his first official album, 8Bit Heart, for free on his website; the reaction from listeners was so enthusiastic that the growing legion of fans was dubbed the Robot Army — a group that are every bit as rabid, if not as numerous, as GaGa’s Little Monsters.

So even though RA could be called Simon’s third album, it’s actually his first commercial release — although he remains (incredibly) without a manager, publicist, agent, or label. RA is the first release that could ratchet up enough in sales to position him as a veritable player in the hyper-competitive, oversaturated pop market. RA is the first release that could give Simon the platform that he wants, and deserves.

With RA, the stakes are kinda high.

It’s a relief, then, to discover that it’s not a simple album, or an easy one. From that album cover (captured by in-demand shutterbug Tyler Shields) to the tracklist (titles like “Laser Guns Up,” “How to Start a War,” and “Enemy” create a loose extended metaphor of violence and combat), the album is fraught with emotion — namely, anger — and the expression of that feeling takes precedence over making Simon look good. (This may sound like a fairly straightforward thing, but it’s noteworthy for an artist, especially one who doesn’t yet have the luxury of major-label backing, to sacrifice cultivating a palatable image for greater artistic integrity.)

The gloss and glitz of his early work is traded in for grime and grit, and even though the beats are sleekly pop, the album takes its cues from dubstep, industrial, and drum & bass music. Much of the album sounds like the soundtrack to a sleazy eastern European sex club — I mean that in the most complimentary way possible — like a bitter, vitriolic Justin Timberlake, raised on a diet of Krautrock and diamond dust.

This is not to say that there aren’t more organic touches — the strings on “Soul 4 Sale” are a great example — but it’s overwhelmingly a dark, disillusioned affair. Nowhere is this more finely drawn than on “Enemy,” which I’ve loved since hearing Simon at the ArjanWrites showcase back in April — and the studio version roars and thunders, big and angry without ever losing sight of its pop origins. It would make a worthy third single, following barnstormer “Superhero” and sensual “Flesh.”

Simon has always been transparent about his influences, and two of his icons — Britney Spears and Darren Hayes — are felt everywhere on this record, especially with regard to both artists’ best works (Blackout and The Tension and the Spark, respectively). Like Britney, Simon’s music has a razor-sharp pop edge; he knows that creating music that makes us want to dance is imperative (even as he tells us, “Don’t Dance,” in one of the album’s highlights). But like Darren, Simon writes out of some very private vulnerability, documenting the darkest pieces of himself — the rage and the resentment, the envy and the cynicism — in a way that makes the music so much more compelling than it would be if he’d kept it all neatly compartmentalized.

On Simon’s part, this may be totally exhibitionistic, but make no mistake: It’s a lot of fun to be a part of Simon’s dark, diabolical world.

RA was released on June 7. (iTunes)

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