Kirin J Callinan
Kirin J Callinan’s long-gestating debut solo album is reckless, chaotic and shot through with perversions and masochistic anxieties. It’s also the culmination of a well-documented series of controversial artistic decisions. Why are we still so fascinated by Callinan, asks STEPH KRETOWICZ.
I’m still undecided on Kirin J Callinan. On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that he’s countering the so-called “feminisation of society” with his demented machismo, a sort of contorted take on queer masculinity in guttural camp. On the other, there’s something glib about the clumsy lyrics and ham-fisted Aussie drawl that permeates Embracism, its graceless exploration of a male physicality that you might argue has been long overexposed. But then, it’s that split, that dichotomous view of gender as being two sides of the human coin, that is perhaps too simplistic.
Callinan’s self-exploration is more about the still blurred and treacherous fringes of sexual ambiguity; especially these days, where marriage equality draws ever nearer and the place of transgression – when same-sex relationships stand to become (hetero)normalised and the lines of “respectability” simultaneously broadened and petrified – coming into question.
In that case, what of the people not so easily defined, the guys who wear their girlfriend’s clothes and “cry when [they] listen to Springsteen”? The ones who coach under-15s football and then dare to write a song about the stinking, sweaty, semen-soaked mess of homoeroticism of an extremely repressed sporting culture? These are all questions that Callinan’s very existence, as a character with a growing cult of personality rapidly forming around him, represents, and Embracism is its most incisive realisation to date.
A chaotic romp through territories still off limits to even the most liberal-minded listener, Callinan succumbs to the perversions and masochistic anxieties of himself as “other,” particularly within a typically macho rock format. “A man can meet another man in a bar, on the sports field,” he spits over a jarring noise that rubs up against gyrating bass distortion and shrill synth lines before dropping down into a lascivious “Or in his own apartment” on the title track. It’s an urgency that almost, but never quite, reaches its climax as Callinan chants, “Come on embrace” before his cries are discharged into a fading calm, through a closing grunt. The evocative imagery brings to mind those out-of-hand post-match parties; sportsmen in dresses simulating blowjobs, expressing their latent desires in a milieu of piss, puke, and a rising, insurmountable tension.
“There’s the abandoned album, catastrophic gigs and the clueless cultural insensitivity.”
That tension carries on, within and without the music itself; where a split in public opinion toward this sort of abjection that Callinan frequently provokes begs the question of “How far is too far?” There’s the abandoned debut album, catastrophic gigs and the clueless cultural insensitivity, as demonstrated by his niqab-wearing and otherwise entirely naked girlfriend in last year’s ‘Way II War’ video.
The very idea of inducing a fit in a photosensitive epileptic in the Sugar Mountain audience was already overstepping ethical boundaries, but what are ethics anyway and why are we still so fascinated by Kirin J Callinan? It’s as if this “Kirin” character is the egoistical doppleganger of “Kieran” proper, entirely unconcerned with those around him and unapologetically self-seeking. And yet, that’s what is most appealing.
Like a morbid compulsion urging us onward to the scene of an accident, Embracism is the realisation of the demon in all of us, personified by the degenerate nakedness of the androgyne Callinan and his dark fantasies. There’s a consciously ungrammatical allusion to a breakup with what could either be a lover or his car in ‘Scraps’ (“I can’t regret what I done”), and the brutal imagery of ‘Landslide’ (“The stars are all dirt and god is in the water”) revealing the earthy bitterness of a boy who’s become a man in the face of nature’s cruelty. Sex and violence are indistinguishable, while the barefaced pop of Alex Akers’ assuaging vocals and ’80s glam keyboards, produced by Presets member Kim Moyes, are oddly compatible in ‘Halo’; rhythm guitar, an ambient breakdown and rising strings in ‘Chardonnay Sean’ strangely beautiful.
“There’s an element of foolish disregard for consequences that makes ‘Embracism’ so exciting.”
It’s an unruly sound and poetry that is somehow scraped together and channeled through an electronic mix that is far more direct and affecting than the unhinged and chaotic live performances could ever hope to be, while the observation that New York Times reviewer Jon Caramanica “was still thinking about it” when he dubbed Callinan “a child actor at the end of a junior high school play” comes as an insightful one, if not a touch optimistic.
Because, while there’s nothing about Kirin J Callinan that is accidental – a cultivated voice that still sounds like it’s been ripped to shreds, a hopelessly depraved stage presence come from a well-mannered, if eccentric, individual – there’s an element of foolish disregard for consequences that makes Embracism so exciting. Offering honesty, not in authenticity but in a commitment to transgressive performance that neutralises morality and becomes the ultimate expression of camp, Kirin J Callinan makes you think. Sometimes, that’s all you can really hope for.