Vanity Is Forever
On his artistic triumph ‘Vanity Is Forever’, Geoffrey O’Connor finds himself a detached observer of his own party, writes HANNAH BROOKS.
Vanity Is Forever is a trip into a realm Geoffrey O’Connor has only recently come to occupy. It’s a Lynchian boudoir of dreams, filled with Argento angels fluttering bedroom eyes tinted by blush-coloured lights. A place where gold-plated heroines steal scenes and promises of eternal love are nothing more than a boozy lunch; fleeting but worth every mouthful.
Within this seductive space lounges a newly phlegmatic O’Connor. Having performed under different guises for close to a decade – as the Crayon Fields’ singer, guitarist and principal songwriter, and as Sly Hats, his breezy first solo foray – O’Connor has been around. But until now his stride, while lengthy, has never been so confident. He’s an artist that’s always had his own gait but these days it’s flourished into a fully-fledged swagger.
To pull off music as melodramatic as the 12 songs on Vanity requires a certain amount of courage and poise and O’Connor gracefully succeeds. The album is far sleeker than anything he’s done before: the production is clean, shiny clean, the drums are almost entirely artificial and syrupy synthesisers drool all over virtually every song. But what could have fainted from the threat of too much glitz doesn’t, and for all its hyper-real, cinematic grandeur the album still has an overarching, and very human heart.
Vanity is as much a collection of characters as it songs. From opening track ‘So Sorry’s’ faceless host who’s “never the guest” to the unavailable vixen on ‘Idle Lover’, O’Connor presents a menagerie of beauties from his position as the omnipresent narrator, chivalrous enough to show them in their best, although sometimes shattered, light. Like the personalities in his songs, guests – some with instruments, some with voices – come and go. There are cameos from Melbourne musicians Esther Edquist, Raquel Solier, Jono Edmonds, Felicity Cripps, Guy Blackman and Mark Monnone. Some – Ben Montero, Julian Patterson – linger a while longer, yet O’Connor’s singular vision is never blurred.
Long-time collaborator Jessica Venables obviously has her own key. She weaves her way in and out of the record, adding vocals and using her cello to frenziedly carve her initials all over the once tranquil ‘Expensive’. The duet ‘Things I Shouldn’t Do’ sees O’Connor and Venables playing with fire, knowingly burning their fingers while lustily reprimanding each other. On ‘Have Your Way’ she unrolls her stockings as he loosens his tie, with Venables’ climactic “ahs” hand-feeding more volts to an already electric chemistry.
While some of the songs towards the end of the album, such as ‘Bad Ideas’ and ‘Surely’, see O’Connor momentarily hang up his leather jacket for a return to less-embellished indie pop, the whole album is bathed in a ’80s sheen. Certain tracks, particularly the brilliantly-enthusiastic celebratory anthem ‘Proud’, evoke loud shirts, bleeding nostrils, and girls and boys called Blair or Blake. But in Vanity-land, there’s a sophistication and open-eyed weariness present, which that naive era never really had. However, beneath the high-fiving abandon, there’s a second of confusion. “I can’t tell if people flirt with me because I’m miserable or loose,” sings O’Connor before joining the conga line back to the party. In the sensual world, things are never quite as simple as they seem.
Throughout the album, O’Connor appears luminescent but, paradoxically, in the shadows; like a voyeur on his own record. As he appears on the coolly clinical album cover, shot by the equally cool customer Darren Sylvester, he participates, but from afar. His vocals rarely rise above a detached commentary (think of Gainsbourg’s unblinking indifference as various topless women offer their breasts to him in the clip for ‘Love On The Beat’).
“Throughout the album, O’Connor appears luminescent but, paradoxically, in the shadows; like a voyeur on his own record.”
Shielded by his moonless glasses, he offers only snatches of himself. As he sings on ‘Things I Shouldn’t Do’, “I’d say I got over telling my secrets to everyone/That spilling it so gracelessly was something I did when I was young.” The tables are turned on ‘Have Your Way’, where he offers suggestively, “Do you know you could have your way with me?” Although he longs to have a part in his own movie, a vulnerability, bordering on fear, keeps his from indulging too deeply in his self-styled world. So, like the goldfish he holds in his glass, O’Connor gives himself only so much room to move but within that space he radiates: oozing greatness that wavers back and forth between artifice and honesty.
A reflective sense of fate permeates certain songs. On ‘Bad Ideas” and first single ‘Whatever Leads Me To You’ he concludes that no matter how messy life may get, or how sharp certain blades are to swallow, if it gets him to where he wants to be, it’s entirely worth it. Despite the many bruises he acquires along the way, love – the ultimate destination – heals all wounds. On ‘Like They Say It Does’ he contemplates his tombstone wish and, like a true romantic, it appears simply to be: I loved and was loved.
With Vanity Is Forever, O’Connor has raised the bar higher for himself than it’s even been before. Instead of collapsing under its weight or giving in to compromise, he’s simply tugged his pants up, stretched out his back and limboed right under it, while his cast of characters cheer him on from the other side.
‘Vanity Is Forever’ is out now through Chapter Music.
Listen to ‘Vanity Is Forever’: