What makes a band often tends to be the same thing that breaks them. For Scissor Sisters, what made them interesting and popular at first was the apparent conflict between the two sides of their musical personality – flaming disco divas on one side and a ‘proper’ band on the other side – but that refusal to be pigeonholed may have cost them in the longer run. On fourth album Magic Hour, there’s no sign of a reconciliation between those two warring musical factions.
It’s too simplistic to be true, but at times it feels like those two sides are defined by the two main songwriters in the group, with Jake Shears the falsetto-singing, glam-stomping disco queen of Filthy Gorgeous and the cover of Comfortably Numb that shot them to fame, while Babydaddy represents the Laura/Man Of Golden Words side of their music. Their biggest successes – Take Your Mama and I Don’t Feel Like Dancing are the ones that blend the two together most effectively, and the problem with last album Night Work is that it lacked a big enough hit to maintain their level of exposure to the audiences who bought those songs.
Whether it was just that first single Fire With Fire didn’t light up the radio waves or that Joe Public was getting tired of not knowing whether Scissor Sisters would be back with a sleazy sex song or emotional ballad, it’s impossible to tell, but they’ve come up with a different approach on Magic Hour. That approach is to add a few more musical personalities into the blend with a series of guest writers, producers and performers, and you’ve got to say that it works pretty well and might just reverse their backwards slide.
It gets off to a promising start with Baby Come Home, co-written by John Legend and identifiably so, but still managing to sound like a very good Scissor Sisters song at the same time. If that makes any sense. That’s the most important thing to remember about getting a load of outside people involved, you’ve got to remember that the fans want to hear you, not them. And it’s a blend that they manage to mostly get right here, even when throwing ubiquitous names like Pharrell Williams and Calvin Harris into the mix.
They feature on two of the most poptastic and danceable tracks, Inevitable and Only The Horses, and the latter has got its producer’s fingerprints all over it. I’ve seen some criticism of it as being overtaken by that ‘Calvin Harris’ sound, but I think it works very well because of Shears’ soaring vocals, which do a good job of keeping it sounding like Scissor Sisters. I may have nominally assigned him to one side of that musical split, but his vocal versatility on both sides is what makes the formula so successful and he’s on fine form on Magic Hour.
That extends even to a bit of rapping (in the guise of his fictional rapper ID – Krystal Pepsy) on Shady Love, which features the likely-soon-to-be-huge Azealia Banks. It’s a funky and fun track that doesn’t sound much like anything else on here, but that doesn’t matter too much. Even when it follows the even-more-out-there Let’s Have A Kiki, which ironically sounds a bit like Banks’ breakthrough hit 212, even though it’s one of the few tracks not to have outside collaborators. That is sounds the least like Scissor Sisters when it was written and produced entirely by themselves perhaps highlights that contradictory nature of theirs.
Ah yes, my stupid theory about their ‘two sides’. So far I’ve only mentioned the camp side of their nature, but there’s evidence of the other side too, on the excellent Year Of Living Dangerously and the full-on ballad The Secret Life Of Letters, co-written by Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman) and making Shears sound a little bit like Rufus Wainwright. Both are great and show that Scissor Sisters remain one of the most interesting pop groups around, even if they might be a little too interesting and diverse to stay mega-popular.
Magic Hour is stylistically all over the place, perhaps even more so than any of their previous albums. That might be down to the outside influences on it, or it might just reflect that this isn’t a band ready to pigeonhole themselves, but either way, it works far more successfully here than it did on Night Work, and the production of Alex Ridha on eight of the tracks adds a cohesive danceable glue to proceedings that also brings their sound up to date in a way that the last album perhaps wasn’t. That ‘war’ within their sound that I keep mentioning maybe has cost them their shot at being the biggest pop band in the world, but they should never change it, because they remain one of the best.