by Bernadette Bruu, WRUC Senior General Manager
(Originally published in the Union College Concordiensis on May 30, 2018.)
To hear one of alt-pop artist Ssion’s songs is to enter into an alternate reality, one that fuses the visual culture of David Bowie and The Psychedelic Furs with an equally larger-than-life approach to musical composition not unlike those undertaken by Madonna and Prince. It’s no wonder that Ssion’s founder and frontman Cody Critcheloe (hereafter “Ssion”) lists as some of his influences.
The extension of a small punk band from Kentucky, Ssion is best described as a multiplatform creative project with a vision that reaches far beyond its underground roots. May 11, 2018 marked the release of their second studio album, but they’ve been creating raucous anti-establishment content since the early 2000s. The thirteen-track “O” stays true to its contrarian tradition, but despite, or maybe because of, their DIY modus operandi — skillfully built on electronic patchwork and drag culture references — critics are giving Ssion the praise usually reserved for pop icons, with good reason.
Above everything, an attitude of unapologetic queerness encapsulates the overtones of “O” and glazes each song with a sort of wistful and yet witty glamor. The first track “Big As I Can Dream” is an Old Hollywood ballad for the fringes of Gen X — like if “La La Land” were a gay film that premiered at Sundance. We then transition seamlessly into what Ssion referred to in an interview as his “humble attempt at Bohemian Rhapsody,” an instant classic in the making titled “Comeback.” It was released as a single back in 2017 and has become representative of Ssion’s new-and improved image, in the making since 2001 and revived by a musical landscape that is finally receptive to the celebration of LGBT culture and history.
The first half of the album is wholly upbeat, adapting many structural features of 1980s pop and new wave. Songs like the feature filled “Dogs like Asphalt” is a euphoric shouting match that professes “I’m a doll in the valley of the dogs,” while “Inherit” rolls so smoothly that it sounds like Mel Gibson’s lost passion project. It gets conceptually darker with experimental tracks like “The Cruel Twirl” and “1980- 1989.” We don’t know exactly from what life experiences Ssion is drawing from, but we know it makes us want to scream, cry and dance all at the same time.
The sequence mellows with the wistful “Let Me Down Like U” and “Tell Me About it,” and rounds out with the interlude “Free Lunch (Break)” before finishing strong with “Heaven Is My Thing Again.” This conclusion is a self-righteous tale of discovery, with lyrics like “Long live the king inside my head,” suggesting a possible rejection of the dominant culture that suggests gay individuals won’t get into heaven. It also positions “heaven” as a lover, sending the same message of shameless commitment to seeking out and preserving personal source of happiness.
The end of “O” leaves us with a feeling of restlessness, but it’s surprisingly sustainable. Both his new and old content point to the possibility that ambitious visionaries like him are never content with the status quo. For them, life is a raucous and glittery protest march, and they’re the ones holding a megaphone up to the crowd.