Review: Pageant - PWR BTTM

Read Courtney's follow up article to this review here.

Reviewed by Courtney Brunn

    It’s hard to be a member of the LGBT community in America today.  Homophobia, transphobia and general bigotry is rampant and even, so it can sometimes seem, condoned by “the powers that be.” In a nation so bleak and ruthless, finding routes of joy, brightness, and even lighthearted celebration in this community can seem almost impossible.  However, on their sophomore album Pageant, New York based gritty pop-rock duo PWR BTTM have managed to address some of these tense issues in a loud, vibrant, and quirky--yet blatantly unapologetic and honest--way.

    Pageant is Ben Hopkins’ and Liv Bruce’s follow-up to debut LP Ugly Cherries.  Although maintaining the band’s signature upbeat, hook-filled sound with skipping verses and booming choruses (significantly present on new tracks such as “LOL”), Pageant sees a growth and transformation of the music as well.  Moving on from simply guitar, drums, and vocals, Pageant uses these as merely a foundation for each song, toying around with new tricks and sounds (no pun intended). “Silly,” the record’s first song, showcases much of this growth right out of the gate, launching the album with soaring electric guitar, opera, and, most notably, horns--a far cry on paper from the content of Ugly Cherries, but indisputably PWR BTTM in practice.  

    Amidst a sea of colorful and anthemic rock (where, at times, you can almost see the glitter that went into producing the album), however, lies what makes PWR BTTM so unique: brutal honesty through anecdotal lyricism.  Sometimes, this is done through playful humor (take, for example, the line “I took a selfie with God” in “Kid’s Table”).  Other times, it is done through relatable experiences lived by Bruce or Hopkins that will make you whisper 'same' while listening, such as the lines, “Why does every man in a suit have something to sell me / and what would i give just to make them all go away,” in gritty “Sissy,” or, “I’m gonna beat myself up for beating myself up,” in a wailing “Now Now.”  

    However, most importantly is the personal introspection that surfaces in short yet valuable pockets throughout the album, often dealing with the effects of being queer (both Bruce and Hopkins use they/them pronouns, with Bruce identifying as non-binary and transfeminine) in a society fixed in gender norms, governed by a transphobic and homophobic administration.  Songs such as acoustic title track “Pageant,” which features a heart-wrenching conversation between brain and body (highlighted in lines such as, “Body says to my brain / Jesus Christ why don’t you love me? / I’ve been feeling so ugly”) provide emotional vulnerability.  Other songs such as stripped-down “Styrofoam” take a much more specific approach, addressing inner monologues regarding being transgender.  The song is highly personal, detailing experiences such as waking up every day with a certain body, even wishing to be able to “take it off” while grappling with the inherent self-doubt and uncertainty of being transgender, yet settling on the hopeful motif, “since I’m stuck here, I guess I’ll make it home.”  

"I want to challenge people to conceive of a record that is personal and political. The two don’t need to be in conflict.”- Liv Bruce

    Even the louder and less intimate songs on the album are laced with similar and equally as important messages, such as “Big Beautiful Day,” which angrily promotes dismissing gender roles (“Curse that motherfucker who would spit upon another’s body”) and stand-out track “New Trick,” which boasts an ear-crushing, grunge-y chorus alongside lines like, “I’m not exactly a boy in a dress / But thank you, I know what you mean.”  Tracks like these truly highlight PWR BTTM’s unique ability to craft uplifting songs about extremely weighted topics.

    It is difficult to cope with the current state of America, as well as the state of the planet.  It is even harder to cope while being a member of a marginalized group, particularly the LGBT community.  The issues faced by these groups are very real and very important.  Because of the gravity of the state of society, though, a break from “doomsday” is crucial.  PWR BTTM provides this relief in a way that, instead of ignoring these issues, depicts them in a confident and self-loving manner that, although accessible and enjoyable to all listeners, allows members of these communities, in particular, to celebrate through fun, windows-down-during-a-summer-drive-esque rock music.  Beneath the glitter, paint, and undeniable good time, Pageant could very well be the most important record of 2017.

RATING: 10/10

Ethos Live Staff Favorite Tracks:

Courtney: "New Trick"

Mike: "LOL"

Michelle: "Kids' Table"

Pageant is out this Friday, May 12, on Polyvinyl Records. You can order a physical copy here, and download it on iTunes here. You can also stream the album NPR


05/26 - Toronto ON @ Velvet Underground

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