In a musical landscape where artists are openly embracing their queerness and presenting it with a much overdue normalcy, vibrance and romanticism, there is, by contrast, a darker side that is explored on Hideous Bastard – the solo debut album from musician and member of acclaimed band the xx, Oliver Sim.
The album finds Oliver diving headfirst into the pain of such experiences and resurfacing as a stronger person across 10 tracks that address stigmatisation, isolation, modern ‘romantic’ dynamics and his relationship with himself. The horrifying cover art, depicting a headshot of Oliver cut up, bleeding, with letters gruesomely embedded within the wounds, is the most overt hint that he is delivering a personal body of work.
Yet, even through his probing of personal wounds, there is an overriding sense of healing that occurs from facing things directly – which is what he achieves here. The adjective ‘hideous’ is not being utilised by Oliver to indicate appearances, but rather the complex mix of demons and memory that we all have to reckon with as they mercilessly shape our lives. Through varied production incorporating grim electronic textures, guitar, strings and vocal samples, there are tracks that feel reminiscent of Sim’s band the xx (and the production done by bandmate Jamie xx also assists in that), yet it also expands beyond those sonic horizons.
The opening track “Hideous” is a shatteringly personal track that finds Sim grappling with the aftermath of a life-changing diagnosis and the perceptions surrounding it. With its harmonious guitar plucks, swelling strings, gentle tempo and one of the most gut-wrenching performances Sim has ever delivered, this is an eye-opening and revelatory track for the musician. “I’m ugly,” he begins straightforwardly, “I’m up and down right now / I’m down and bloody.” It’s rare and stirring to have one’s vulnerability revealed so directly. Eventually, the production shrinks back and Sim shatters the silence with a stark revelation: “Been living with HIV / Since I was 17 / Am I hideous?” In an applaudable and brutally honest way, Sim tackles the stigmatisation of the condition and shifts the question to the listener who may, perhaps unaware, be ignorant in their own views. It is brilliant opener that is all about the difficult process of accepting your truth and the catharsis that follows.
The album continues with Oliver tackling the discrepancy between romantic idealism and reality on “Romance With A Memory”, which finds him cynically addressing a mutually callous hookup. Self-awareness pervades the track as he wonders about whether letting these needs for physicality eclipse what he really wants contributes to the desire (“Handsome / I’d only wanted to feel handsome / But there’s excitement in that feeling / Of not getting what I needed”). There are two opposing forces driving Oliver’s relationship to this person and his awareness of this causes self-analysis. “Since the day we met / The only thing I regret / Is my taste for disinterest” admits Sim, letting “disinterest” glitch into an electronic drawl as if hinting the exact opposite. It’s an interesting, layered track that puts a focus on our willingness to persevere with people who do not fulfil us.
The middle of Hideous Bastard finds Oliver exploring the loss of romance even more so and his dysfunctional relationship with it. “Sensitive Child” invokes the classic trip-hop sound of a Portishead track with its muted snares, dark groove and echoing vocals. Sluggishly, Oliver recognises the signs of an impending breakup and relates it to the empathy he’s had since very young (“I know your voice / I know your smile / Where are you, where did you go? / You’re not the person I know”). It eventually swells into something more aggressive demonstrating how tentative the barrier is between sadness and anger.
A post-breakup track titled “Never Here” has a more traditional alternative sound with electronic flourishes dealing with the existential questions of whether things were as wonderful in the past as they seemed. “I tampered with a memory / I lost its original colour / Moments are temporary / Can’t take from home from the summer,” he sings in frustration. The imagery of scrolling through the photos on your phone to recapture a feeling that’s already gone.
“Saccharine” is a lyrical highlight about the difficulties of accepting something good for you or what Sim deems “a tenderness that I just can’t take.” A more moody and atmospheric cut off the album, Sim subverts the typical bright attitude of romance and instead, uses his discovery of it to introspectively contemplate his own attitudes towards romance. “I never had a taste for saccharine / It’s a miracle that you got in,” he admits.
For the final three tracks, the album takes a more uplifting direction both sonically and somewhat lyrically. This starts from the highlight “GMT”, a lovely, serene combination of stacked vocal harmonies with splintery electronic flourishes and – perhaps more surprisingly – a Beach Boys sample. Although a more conventionally romantic track, Sim has stated that he wrote the song for London while working overseas. Even as the background harmonies occasionally get discordant, the song is tinged with literal colour (“Someone decided to save my life / Pink and blue, pink and blue”). There is further warmth on the album’s bop “Fruit”, which finds Oliver embracing himself, his sexuality and his femininity. “Take a bite babe / Take a bite babe / It’s an ordinary thing,” he sings in encouragement against further stigmatisation of feminine expression. It proves another liberating aspect of Hideous Bastard, but one that’s more sensuous and flirty – Oliver fully comfortable in his skin as he sings “Surrounded by rocks / You’re gonna look the gem.”
The interesting climax of the album is the lush and opulent “Run The Credits”, which proves an unconventional backdrop to Oliver’s desire for resolution. With bright production of manipulated vocal samples, glittery piano, bass and strings, Sim dismantles the romanticism of films and instead compares himself to Buffalo Bill and Patrick Bateman. This isn’t a literal admission of potential psychotic behaviour. but rather characters used to contrast against how he’s “Staring up at the silver screen / Sold me the lie of the teenage dream.” Instead of believing in “Disney princes”, Oliver is more rooted in the reality that the world is far more harsher and unpredictable than such fairytales. The refrain of the song is a Shakespearian spoiler as he sings: “Romeo dies, dies, he dies, in the final scene”, as if emphasising that romance is just as capable of leading to doom as it is to a happy ever after. This track is dynamic and appropriately cinematic for the finale with Oliver proclaiming his desire for someone to “Run the credits / let them rain on me.” It feels a plaintive ode to wanting peace after so much conflict and growth.
Hideous Bastard proves a stirring, uncomfortably honest and ultimately inspiring portrait of Oliver Sim and his internal conflicts. For an artist to let the listener in this deep, especially on a debut project, is quite a rare feat that should be appreciated. Although sonically the production can feel repetitive – especially towards the album’s middle – what ultimately anchors this project is the lyricism. He manages to explore his experience as a gay man and all its accompanying troubles and triumphs, yet also frame them in the universal understandings of heartbreak and alienation. Despite the album’s title, Oliver proves that self-acceptance and the process that accompanies it, can only lead to beauty.