Indie rock is desperate for rebel heroes right now, and Lewis’s ascent reveals how embarrassingly low the bar is. If more hosannas ensue when “Confess” drops on Tuesday, they’ll probably be sung in celebration of the singer’s faux-rebel image, not his songs.
The album itself couldn’t play it any safer, embarking on another dead-end expedition to the 1980s. It’s all retro-glassy textures outfitted with lyrics about love’s complexities sung by a young man whose ego seems to have replaced his heart.
It’s bad. But what makes Lewis’s music so interesting is how eagerly it has been embraced — it’s critical reception illustrates indie rock’s sexual double standard at work. Earlier this year, an online shouting match erupted around Lana Del Rey, a fast-climbing New York singer whose background was scrutinized as if she were running for office. When her first album, “Born to Die,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, the blogosphere chased its tail in a style-vs.-substance debate that is reserved almost exclusively for female artists. Could someone this attractive, this fashionable, this concerned with her image, this unapologetically ambitious, actually be “the real thing”?
New question. Will anyone bother to ask those same questions of Lewis? He’s an equally ambitious, equally good-looking guy who loves to talk about the depth of his ambition and the extent of his good-lookingness. He recently described his look to Spin as “James Dean in Bollywood in the late ’80s.” Other interviews make him look like a first-class narcissist in ways that are both amusing and sad.
But instead of putting him through the wringer, the blogeratti are pinning medals on Lewis’s chest. He’s being championed as a savvy, stylish bad boy for the same reasons Del Rey was dismissed as a fraud.
They’ve both made treacly albums that fail to communicate actual emotion, and “Confess” is the weaker of the two.
Lewis has trumpeted himself as a student of pop and rhythm and blues, but he gets a failing grade for his inability to conjure a memorable melodic hook. The closest he gets on “Confess” is with “Five Seconds,” which feels like an arranged marriage of A-ha’s “Take on Me” and TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me.” During the song’s refrain, the singer plays the wounded tough guy, bellowing, “I don’t believe in you/ You don’t believe in me/ So how could you make me cry?”
The album’s other tracks feel uniformly unimaginative and pseudo-sexy, safely couched in the tones and rhythms of the Reagan era. You’ll hear the ghosts of the Psychedelic Furs, Gary Numan, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel, but you won’t hear the 21st-century risk-taking that should be demanded of an artist with such a bloated sense of self.
Yeah, yeah. We’ve lived through two decades of post-Nirvana rock-and-roll humility and it’s starting to feel a little oppressive. The genre feels overpopulated with polite and humble troubadours; we could use a few more self-obsessed outlaws to shake things up. No argument there.
But for now, the culture seems all too eager to accept anyone who’s willing to slip into the role. They don’t need to have much personality or imagination — just a Y chromosome.