Have the pleasures and pressures of fame blunted the edge of everyone’s favourite beautiful freaks?
As every hardcore fan knows, there are enormous mixed feelings involved in seeing a band you loved early on go nuclear. While it’s great that they’re getting the success they deserve, everyone’s in on your secret, and their gigs are populated by people who you’d cross six lanes of traffic to avoid. It’s not just musical snobbery – mass appeal has the effect of flattening out a band’s subtleties, of accentuating the obvious. Self-consciousness starts to creep in, and a band can begin to play up to what they think people like about them rather than just doing what comes naturally.
All of which preamble goes some way to explaining Scissor Sisters’ predicament on their second album, ‘Ta-Dah’. Even the absence of an exclamation mark suggests someone trying and failing to create a party atmosphere. At time of writing, first single ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’’ is set to be a massive hit, but it’s by far the crassest, cheesiest thing they’ve ever done, closer to the Nolan Sisters than their beloved Roxy Music. ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’’ sounds like a band deliberately making an anthem for hen parties and living down to The Sun’s easy stereotype of them as “camp disco queens” when there’s so much more to them than that.
Or was. The brilliant thing about the success of their self-titled debut album was how accidental it seemed. Scissor Sisters were a bunch of New York eccentrics who somehow connected with a mass audience through the sheer infectious joy in what they were doing, however superficially scary (ie gay) it might have seemed. They threw that rarest of things – a weirdo hipster thrash at which everyone turned up and was made welcome.
Now they are trying to keep in the room guests they never imagined would show up in the first place, and the strain of having to entertain them is starting to show. Loads of this album is lyrically downbeat, from ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’’ to ‘Paul McCartney’, which includes the telling lines “Here I was awaiting/Praying for the muse”. The strange ‘Intermission’, a collaboration with Elton John pitched between The Beatles and burlesque, announces “Happy yesterday to all/We were born to die”.
Yet entertain the crowds they do, because that’s suddenly their job. So Scissor Sisters paste the smile on and make records such as final track ‘Everybody Wants The Same Thing’. Debuted at Live8, it attempts to rouse but only ends up reducing Scissor Sisters’ knack for bringing diverse groups of people together under their freaky banner into a bland slogan that just homogenises everyone. The music hall/country-tinged ‘I Can’t Decide’ lends weight to the suspicion that Scissor Sisters have gone from nightlife art stars to panto dames. Where are the songs about the crystal meth addicts, the hookers, the fat girls and the backroom boys? Left outside the gates of Elton John’s mansion presumably, a place that only admits celebrities and where Scissor Sisters seem to have been spending a dangerously large amount of time. Certainly Elton’s musical influence is all over this record, pushing everything ever further into mainstream Radio 2 territory.
It’s not all bad news, though. ‘Lights’ is a sumptuous, string-drenched disco track which comes on like a cross between Frankie Valli’s ‘Grease’ and The Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ without ever sounding forced. ‘Just Might Tell You Tonight’ is a touching and direct love song with an instantly memorable chorus. A couple of listens (all we were allowed due to piracy concerns) suggests that the weird, Fleetwood Mac-style soft rock of ‘The Other Side’ might be a grower, and though it’s tempting to say that although ‘Paul McCartney’ is more Wings’ ‘Coming Up’ than The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’, it does at least have a compelling hook. The bonus track ‘Transistor’, a dissonant and indulgent Pink Floyd-tinged ballad, finally gives you the sense of Scissor Sisters breathing out and doing the kind of record they want to make, rather than the one that’s now expected of them.
And that’s the problem with ‘Ta-Dah’. Scissor Sisters sound under so much pressure to follow up a monster hit that they’re not actually having any fun. They might be pretending that they are, but the lack of joie de vivre keeps showing through. ‘Ta-Dah’ will be a commercial success, but something has been lost. It’s not ‘One Way Ticket To Hell And Back’ but neither is it a return to Oz.