Oliver Sim is well aware that self-exploration can be a painful, even destructive process, As if to make the point a sledgehammer, the gory cover art for Hideous Bastard (★★★☆☆) features the letters of the album title sticking out of Sim’s grinning face.
A devout horror fan who also collaborated on a three-part horror short, Sim leans into his preoccupation with ugliness and monstrosity, and the gruesome image neatly echoes Hideous Bastard‘s deliberate, artful lack of subtlety.
From its opening lines, it’s clear Hideous Bastard is a deeply personal work for Sim, which may go some way towards explaining why his foray into solo work has come so long after his xx bandmates Romy Mady Croft and Jamie xx began pursuing their own projects.
“Been living with HIV since 17,” he bluntly intones at the end of his album opener and lead single “Hideous,” immediately following the revelation by asking “Am I hideous?” Disclosing his HIV status while also openly reckoning with the attendant shame that has accompanied it throughout his adult life is a devastating one-two punch.
While Sim never quite manages to recapture the brilliance and emotional heft of his opener, he remains focused on the intertwined feelings of fear and shame, and the way they weave themselves into our relationships and affect our expectations of the world and ourselves.
He comes close to matching the stark, introspective honesty of the title track in his musings on the relationship between shame and queer love on “Fruit,” and in his admission in “Sensitive Child” of the fragility that holds him back from relationships. For listeners used to the icy aloofness of the xx, hearing Sim open up with such frankness might be jarring.
Even as he opens up about some uncomfortably personal things, however, Sim is still aware of the safety offered by masking one’s inner turmoil, and seems unsure about exactly how much he can, or should share.
“Take my word, then check back later,” he cautions on “Unreliable Narrator,” a song inspired by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho — another sort of monster who hides in plain sight.
The bluntness that Sim uses to such great effect in many instances also occasionally works against him. “I’m right back to sugar-free,” he sings on the trance-like “Saccharine,” a song that tortures a metaphor for unrequited love that never quite lands in the first place. Despite several moments of real brilliance, the songwriting on Hideous Bastard is often noticeably rough around the edges.
Awkward delivery occasionally dampens some genuinely clever insights, such as his likening of being queer to being “a psycho killer in a romantic comedy” on the closer “Run the Credits,” which suffers from clunky lines like “Disney princes, god I hate them/I’m Buffalo Bill, I’m Patrick Bateman.” Moments like these stick out uncomfortably alongside moments of real brilliance.
Despite its growing pains, the album still feels far from amateurish. Even without the benefit of Croft’s harmonies, Sim’s voice stands remarkably well on its own. He also benefits enormously from his strong working relationship with Jamie xx, who produced the entire album.
His longtime bandmate’s use of bass and synths lends the album an atmospheric emotional depth that proves to be a highly effective vehicle for Sim’s intimate personal revelations. Interventions like the heavy beat and dramatically lowered pitch on the intense “Never Here” and the overlapping and looping vocals on “GMT” ensure that Hideous Bastard remains a compelling listen from beginning to end, even in moments when it lags.
As a longtime member of an enormously popular and celebrated band, Oliver Sim is hardly an unknown quantity. Even so, something about his solo debut feels fresh and promising.
Sim may not always be completely sure how much he wants to say or how to say it in the first place, but he’s aware that there is enormous value in saying it anyway
In its strongest moments, Hideous Bastard is a courageous and quietly brilliant meditation on what it means to feel monstrous in one’s own skin.
Hideous Bastard is available to purchase and stream now. Visit www.oliver-sim.com.
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