I have never been to New York. I admit that much. That said, I am so completely unerringly certain that all of my preconceptions about New Yorkers are true. I am convinced the people there are all hooked on asparagus and amethyst smoothies, that they all have their own personal astrologists that cost over $100 a session and that take place in cramped studio apartments that smell of hemp, that they wear either new, expensive clothes designed to look neither new nor expensive or old 90s tat from bargain bins all in the name of some ironic-but-also-actually-not-ironic aesthetic.
Nothing has confirmed these prejudices like PWR BTTM, a band that is the epitome of what I imagine New Yorkers to be. But hey, I don’t mean that as an insult. And even if I did, PWR BTTM wouldn’t give a shit. They’re a band who know exactly what they are: queer, millennial, loud, punky, emotional, sweet and sour in equal measure, and make no apologies for it.
Liv Bruce’s and Ben Hopkins’ debut album, 2015’s Ugly Cherries, showcased the band’s raw, pop-punk style, a sound that continues on their latest release, Pageant, but now there is something slightly more polished, more layered, more fleshed-out here too. Album opener ‘Silly’ sounds bigger than anything on the duo’s debut, beginning with an urgent, frenetic guitar riff that swells into a rambunctious chorus that features horns and clashing cymbals, a crescendo that covers new ground for a group that has previously felt more at home in stripped back, lo-fi production.
But the band’s signature riff-driven, sarcastic style is still here too, most notably on ‘Answer My Text’, a track that plays out the band’s fantasies of romantic teenage years in a series of acid-tongued quips. The video for the track sees Liv Bruce reclining on a bed in a room that calls to mind high school dramas like Clueless and Mean Girls, while cradling a bejewelled pink flip phone. The whole thing is PWR BTTM through and through: camp, kitsch and reliant on a very specific aesthetic. But while image has always played an important role in PWR BTTM’s appeal, Pageant is an album that proves there’s far more to Bruce and Hopkins than glitter and sequins.
Listening to Pageant, the sheer variety on offer here is startling. Some will be enamoured by the maturity of ‘Kid’s Table’ while others will find empowerment in the likes of the defiant ‘Sissy’. For some, the emotional ‘Oh, Boy’ will be a clear standout, whereas fans more familiar with the band’s particular brand of snark will be drawn to the sassy ‘LOL’. But a song that everyone will take notice of is the title track. ‘Pageant’ deviates from the rest of the album in many ways, in its acoustic arrangement, its pained, sincere lyrics and its gentle, melodic chorus. The track imagines a dialogue between the body and the brain, depicting them as warring lovers as they search for common ground but ultimately, and tragically, fail to find it.
Trans issues are a recurring theme on Pageant. Final track ‘Styrofoam’ explores Bruce’s gender dysmorphia as they struggle to come to terms with the skin they live in, yearning to “take it off”but being unable to do so, instead forced to make a home of it even though this feels like the least natural thing in the world. It’s tender and honest, leaving behind the wry humour in favour of something little deeper. And it works.
While journos and critics often focus on PWR BTTM’s image, and will likely continue to do so, Pageant is an album that proves the band are capable of substance as well as style. At times tongue-in-cheek and full of two-fingers-up defiance, at others self-loathing and confessional, Pageant is an album that refuses to be defined by a prevailing mood or feeling, instead celebrating the joy of being queer while also embracing all of the struggles that come with it.