Album Review: Shamir – Heterosexuality

[AntiFragile Music; 2022]

Shamir doesn’t owe you any explanations, but he’s going to give you one anyway, whether you like it or not. He might even stomp your neck in the process. Bristling with frustration, anger, confusion, and pain, Heterosexuality, the unclassifiable artist’s eighth record, is a complex and rough-hewn piece of art from an artist who is uncompromising in his vision. After an auspicious debut on the major label circuit, Shamir decided to dislodge himself from the machine, releasing almost every album since 2017 independently. And although this new one is beaming in to our worlds via AntiFragile Music, it finds Shamir no less fierce in his independence and his aesthetic.

Make no mistake: this is a confrontational record, at least much of the time. It’s not pulling any punches, it’s not sparing any thought, no matter how acidic or pointed. It’s confrontational in the way that ANOHNI’s HOPELESSNESS was confrontational: it revels in subject matter dear to the artist’s heart, and channels the pain of their observations and experiences into blistering, sometimes beautiful music.

Heterosexuality starts off already in the red. The first three tracks are some of the most bracing Shamir has made yet, complete with glistening synths atop industrial, Nine Inch Nails-adjacent chugs and beats. Shamir’s tongue-in-cheek lyricism on opener “Gay Agenda” is a bit of a sleight of hand – on the following track, “Cisgender”, we get a buoyant and anguished portrait of self-discovery and identity. Shamir is shucking societal norms entirely, downright demanding to be seen (and heard) on his own terms. Despite a chorus that eventually skyrockets into the ether with Shamir’s trademark, astonishing vocals, it’s the opening line that sticks the most: “You wanna kill me? Well here’s your chance / I can barely get around now as it fucking stands.” It’s a tragic and daring way to start your album’s lead single, but it’s also painfully truthful.

The following “Abomination” is squiggly and unsettled, and includes Shamir rapping lines like “Say my life matter, but it’s just an option / Madam vice president’s a cop, don’t cop shit / Being pushed to you as progress, for profit,” further proving how unafraid he is to be blunt, to reveal himself. In this opening triptych, Shamir almost seems like he’s actively trying to not welcome the faint of heart, or the weak-stomached; to turn off anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say. It’s aggressive and brittle, and not always a pleasant listen, but it is a strong and distinctive start.

Heterosexuality then settles down slightly into a more groove-bound, laid back vibe. There’s the slightly-crunchy, Twin Shadow-esque “Stability” and the laidback Wild Nothing-style nighttime pop of “Caught Up”. Then, at the halfway point, we start getting much more acoustic instrumentation, including laid back acoustic guitars, pianos, and strings.

At times, especially in the second half of the record, there’s a subtly sly, distinct 90s vibe. Songs like “Marriage” wouldn’t be out of place opening for a Sixpence None The Richer or Dido show. “Reproductive” even has a nearly-U2-adjacent guitar passage. There’s just something about the way the songs are produced, arranged, and even performed that feels reminiscent of a certain era of music, liable to be found on an MTV music video block.

And while that’s not necessarily a knock against Heterosexuality, it does leave the album feeling a little lopsided. Shamir continues to try to excavate and come to terms with his past and his trauma, and sometimes that’s just as powerful in the quieter settings (such as on the luminous one-two punch of “Father” and “Cold Brew”) as it was in the more metallic, harsher soundscapes. But there’s a sense of two competing visions here, and the album as a whole winds up feeling a little less cohesive than it could’ve — or even like it doesn’t deliver on its own initial suggested promise.

In the end, this is a small quibble. Shamir has been quietly working for years in the underground since he ditched the major labels, delivering album after album, single after single – he’s never stopped trying to show us himself through his music. His voice — at times sounding akin to Moses Sumney, Nina Simone, or the aforementioned ANOHNI — is a gorgeous instrument, something that would likely sound great singing almost anything. It could be a melancholy embrace of independence on the fraught “Father” or the way he hilariously refers to himself as a “Thicc tankie bitch” on “Abomination”.

And his voice does some of the heavy lifting here, but the rest is carried by his introspective, almost anti-poetic songwriting. (I’m reminded a bit of Phil Elverum’s claim that his songs on his own trauma-informed opus A Crow Looked at Me were “barely music”). The production by Hollow Comet is bright and clean, and the instrumentation is tasteful — almost too tasteful, sometimes verging on a lighters-in-the-air radio pop sensibility. Though maybe that’s part of the goal: a mixture of the accessible and forward-thinking, barbed-wire honesty. Regardless, Shamir has delivered arguably his finest album yet, by engaging with his pain and his curiosities about life, and giving us the privilege of bearing witness to it.