I haven’t been listening to Eugene McGuinness for very long. I was really only barely familiar with his self-titled 2008 album and 2009 effort Glue under the name Eugene + The Lizards when his latest and third release, The Invitation to the Voyage, dropped a couple of weeks ago. But one thing’s for certain whether you’ve been listening to him since his early days or only more recently: the man can write a fucking pop song. On his first two albums these gems were largely unpolished and raw, but with the release of his third album there’s a sheen present that actually doesn’t detract from his songs’ quirky, satisfying melodies and sharp lyrics. Of course, to go along with his change in sound there’s also a drastic change in image. His messy, mushroom-y mop top has been replaced by a sleek and slicked-back ‘do and his turtlenecks and black jeans by sophisticated suits. With this look he channels a ‘60s crooner or mod and provides a strong hint at his influences and idols. McGuinness’s songwriting has only gotten better with time and The Invitation to the Voyage is by far his best and most singular album to date, crammed with brazenly catchy rock ‘n’ roll that doesn’t once sacrifice its weird, funhouse vibe for dance floor playability.
Opener “Harlequinade” is cocky and swaggering, a Commedia dell’Arte-themed late night romp through masked characters and a lot of dancing. In it, Harlequin and Columbine are caught having sex, ecstasy is procured, and Clown and Pantaloon trade lipstick. It’s a night out gone wonky and comedic, with you and your friends becoming these stock characters and behaving increasingly wildly. Correspondingly, the song starts relatively minimally and becomes more bombastic as it progresses, adding horns and lots of backup vocals. It’s an enormous song and more than accomplishes the task of announcing to listeners that it’s an even more confident McGuinness who’s behind the next 35 minutes of music. Next is “Sugarplum”, an equally upbeat number devoted to celebrating the present (“For tomorrow we will rush and crush on the underground/And sure enough the wheels on that bus will go round and round and round”). Of course, this is Eugene McGuinness’s world and so it’s not as perfect as that, particularly when he sings “I should have said it when I had credit/I should have just let it all out/We could be painting this town red/Instead of dwelling in these dungeons of doubt.” How does he escape these oppressive thoughts? By imagining a night out with his sugarplum that’s so transcendent all of his insecurities and indecision are crowded out by lust and confidence. His opening lyric gives it all away: “Come Sugarplum, where we are bold as brass/Cartwheel to our kingdom through the looking glass/Drink until you’re drunk and in an ultraviolet flash/You’ll be catapulted to us, now what you think of that?” Again, his lyrics allude to escape in the style of famous literary works and the swagger he’s trying so desperately to channel shows up in the music, with a driving, practically disco beat that kicks into overdrive when he repeats “I want you as you are.” It’s a dance song, yes, but like all the best dance songs are, it’s a reprieve from monotonous daily routine in its lyrics as well as its style.
“Lion” is even more manic and aggressive than the preceding two songs, and the lyrical knives are apparent right from the start:
I’m sitting on the ventriloquist’s knee/
Allowing his hands somewhere they shouldn’t be/
My disgraceful quest for immortality/
An adventure in an airship inflated by my ego.
Behind the bookcase, start to study/
I’m stitching up freaks in my secret laboratory/
The subtext is dire and the sex is not on fire/
But if beauty is truth that makes you a l-l-liar.
It’s an absolute gut punch of an opening sequence and song, and the fact that McGuinness can turn his likely emotional turmoil into such clever and incisive wordplay is particularly impressive. Perhaps the most exciting part of the song is after the second refrain, when the speed relents for an elegant but no less energetic interval in which he sings about wolves and “brutal wilderness.” This is dramatically capped off by a solo guitar lick and then the angry bombast resumes, only to drop off for good forty seconds later. The video clip for “Lion” is equally frenetic but in a different way; in it, McGuinness sings and stares while four vaguely alterna-girl dancers in blue and red follow him around and invade his personal space. For all that it distracts me from the actual content and excellence of the song, the video is an accomplishment in itself – a very stylized and contemporary take on the old theme of a well-dressed male singer who is accented and surrounded by beautiful women. In this case, though, the dancers definitely represent the person in the song who ignited his anger. He doesn’t often acknowledge them but they don’t go away – they’re a physical manifestation of the bullies in his head. It’s not a groundbreaking video or anything like that, but I think it does deserve a watch as it adds another dimension to the song.
“Videogame” isn’t angry and it isn’t played at breakneck speed, but the energy and drive on this album doesn’t relent here or anywhere. It begins ballad-like, with drawn out phrases and a classic pop sensibility, but picks up ornamentation and drums along the way, culminating in a refrain that includes the lyrics “let’s fuck it up one more time.” McGuinness sounds sad but determined, angry and yet committed to enjoying his youth whatever way that pleasure comes. “Shotgun” is all bravado and sleaze, at first listen distinctive because it samples the theme from Peter Gunn but on subsequent revisits it proves special because of what McGuinness does with such a familiar theme. It’s definitely still got that James Bond arrogance and danger, but the images invoked – Cleopatra, pens and swords, a flaming skull, and Mack the Knife – are more complex, and again, literary in a particularly British way.
“Thunderbolt” is overwhelmingly wordy and packed full of ideas, and there’s also a needy, masochistic element in the way that McGuinness repeats “Strike me like a thunderbolt/Strike me with a billion volts/I’m a commoner gagging out for common assault/Strike me psycho/Thunderbolt.” This song also includes some lengthy intervals of fuzz guitar set against dramatic orchestral parts in the style of a ’60s crime film. The end is particularly beautiful in its crazy culmination of all of these parts. As McGuinness speak-sings “We’ll burn rubber, baby, with the boy racers through town” the horns slow and burn out languidly and evocatively. The title track is lush and retro in the same way that McGuinness’s look is reminiscent of smoky lounges and old fashioneds in rocks glasses – in a word, lovely. For a song dedicated to the way McGuinness loves his guy friends, “Joshua” is pretty goddamn sexy. It’s sweet, too, and perfectly charming in its slight awkwardness and reliance on drama (that special agent-y bassline gets another go-round here).
If this album were predictable, it would end on another ballad like the frankly mediocre “Concrete Moon” that appears early on the album, but “Japanese Cars” is another dance-rock track that really doesn’t have time to be tentative. For a person who wrote the lyrics “We said farewell and we synchronized our watches/Arranged for the meeting of our crotches” the subjects here are the next logical step. About a tryst with an heiress, McGuinness knows he’s getting himself into trouble as her brothers follow him in the cars of the song’s title. There’s the aforementioned car chase, there’s cocaine and sex in a bathroom stall, there’s the subsequent blaming of the girl and some self-pity to follow. I don’t feel sorry for him, but that’s not the point. It’s an excellent song and another fabulous interpretation of action film archetypes, with McGuinness casting himself as the protagonist and giving the well-worn story a personal feel. That’s all on top of his mastery of the style, an electro-pop anthem with the danger and suspense of the action films he’s referencing.
It’s true that I’m not generally a fan of ballads and that I prefer my music to be upbeat, but I think this album stands out even if you don’t have the same musical tastes and inclinations as me. I also love wordplay and vivid imagery and twisted versions of reality, but I really feel that it’s a through a feat of marvelous and prodigiously talented songwriting that all of these things coexist on this album. I suppose on the surface it can be appreciated simply for its incredible pop prowess, but nearly all of these songs on The Invitation to the Voyage offer a heightened, almost hallucinatory experience of young adulthood: filtered through the over-imaginative mind of a kid still obsessed with James Bond and fast cars but combined with the jaded experience that comes from having taken too many drugs and being broken up with by too many girls. As well, his interest in books, culture, and history come through in fascinating ways, making this an album that is highly enjoyable from the first through eighty-second listen (actually, it’s probably still good after that). The Invitation to the Voyage is an enduring pop album for smart people.