There is an overall lack of animating passion to be found on Night Work, the third Scissor Sisters album, some barely tangible quality that would otherwise transform these songs into something inspired rather than something merely competent that is simply missing here. As unfair as it may be to hold the band’s biography against them, the circumstances surrounding the making of Night Work turn out to be especially telling: having spent a year and a half in the studio recording what was to be the follow up to Ta-Dah (2006), the band (whose original drummer Paddy Boom quit during this period, here replaced by the as-goofily-named Randy Real) ended up scrapping entirely the fruits of this labor, grabbing superstar producer Stuart Price (who had previously done some remixes for the band) to help put together what turns out to be exactly the by-no-means disastrous yet largely safe, middling and even exhausted-sounding effort that such a back story would suggest.
What makes Night Work so particularly disappointing is how it finds the Scissor Sisters coming off of two of the most dazzlingly brilliant pop albums of the previous decade. That Scissor Sisters (2004) and Ta-Dah landed on far fewer year-end lists than albums by such standard bearers of the 2000s Great Pop Integration as M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem or the New Pornographers is revealing of the skittishness on the part of so many rock critics when it comes to art that embraces bad taste (Eminem somehow notwithstanding), preferring higher brow cross-cultural mash-ups, hipster self-awareness and rockist nostalgia to Scissor Sisters’ gaudy pop fantasias. The tendency to relegate the band to the ghetto of camp, however, not only fundamentally misunderstands the crucial distinction between camp’s shallow smirkiness and genuine pop art but also shortchanges principle Scissor Sisters songwriters Jake Shears (also the band’s elastic, exciting main vocalist) and Babydaddy as savvy pop archivists very much at the level Maya Arulpragasam, James Murphy and Carl Newman.
If anything, the Scissor Sisters’ brand of pop culture love is an even more openhearted and widely embracing sort than that of their post-millennial peers. The band’s discofied take on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, largely misunderstood as a jokey provocation, was particularly indicative of their affectionate brand of pop satire, a cross-pollination of the “high” and “low” poles of the late ‘70s mainstream that mirrored the liberating erasure of stylistic boundaries found in 21st century pop music. Moments like the appropriation of the famous vocal breakdown from “Stayin’ Alive” in “Comfortably Numb” or the copping of a riff from Clapton’s “Layla” for the intro to “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” (still the band’s best single) are not tarnishing of sacred cows but rather the work of a particular breed of postmodern animal, one with equal reverence for the whole of late 20th century popular culture. Think of the Scissor Sisters, if you will, as pop music’s equivalent to Tarantino’s stylistic merger of the French New Wave with ‘70s grindhouse cinema and you’re on track to understanding these guys’ particular brand of pop-savvy playfulness.
Night Work has no shortage of it’s own spot-the-reference moments, whether they are as vague as the punchy, aerobic title track’s resemblance to any number of early ‘80s Giorgio Moroder production or as up front as quote New Order’s “Temptation” (both in some offhand lyrical references and a distinctly Peter Hook-ian bass line) on the bounding, inexorable “Running Out”. That the latter also finds Jake Shears adopting a robotically nerdy Wall of Voodoo/Flock of Seagulls vocal affectation renders the song one of the few moments here to fully recall the rich pop palette of the previous two records. Elsewhere, though, Night Work rarely finds the band in anywhere near as ambitious a mood, with too many of these songs instead evoking what are by now familiar Scissor Sisters poses, rather than displaying the breadth of their knowledge and love of pop music. Where their previous two records held surprises at every turn, songs like “Harder You Get” and “Something Like This” feel rote and even tired, B-side caliber material no doubt used to fill out an album whose troubled history likely left the band, at least for the time being, hesitant to dabble much.
Largely at a loss for genuine inspiration, Night Work mostly finds the Scissor Sisters resorting to familiar shtick, the result of which is a collection of songs that often feels as glib and shallow as their critics accuse them of being. Start with that ridiculously tacky cover image and contrast it with the evocative ones that adorned the previous two records (a green pastoral wonderland opening up, reverse Wizard of Oz-like, into a sprawling cityscape on the debut, the unmasked Phantom of the Opera-style figure awaiting the elevator passengers on Ta-Dah) and see how it is all too reflective of an album that trades their previous senses of wonder and transgression for much cheaper thrills. Rubbery fake funk workouts like “Whole New Way” and “Any Which Way” are both reminiscent of Ta-Dah’s terrific “I Can’t Decide”, but in the place of the older song’s hedonistic joy (see the great double meaning in Shears’ promise to “fuck and kiss you both at the same time”) find instead coy come-ons like “we can talk about relationships but there are better things to fill your head with” or, most embarrassingly, co-vocalist Ana Matronic’s invitation for her lover to ravish her in front of her parents. Previous Scissor Sisters songs were truly thrilling in their sense of pansexual liberation (and, consequently, probably the reason that the band could never hit in America despite considerable European success, and why their homeland gets stuck with a poor excuse for a gay male pop star like Adam Lambert), a disparity that leaves Night Work feeling comparatively neutered.
Thankfully, not all of Night Work feels so second rate. The Ana Matronic-led “Skin This Cat” is an interesting departure, a nearly lo-fi bit of electroclash weirdness that, in its comparatively unpolished minimalism, serves as an acknowledgement of just how much the sounds of disco and funk from the ‘70s and ‘80s have had on a new wave of bedroom recording artists who, generations ago, would have recoiled from something so extroverted. Better still is lead single “Fire With Fire”, a panoramic ballad whose spacious Edge-like guitars and subtle synth pulses eventually give way to an epic disco throb. It’s a refreshing moment of sincerity on an album that otherwise appears to be constantly winking, enough so that they even manage to sell the mock orchestral flourishes that usher the song towards its finale. Likewise, the rumbling, atmospheric “Skin Tight”, complete with Cyndi Lauper-like vocal hiccups on the soaring chorus refrain, finds them similarly reaching for a melodic expansiveness and succeeding marvelously.
Sadly, such moments are far less representative of this album’s awkward near-miss than a track like the ponderous “Sex and Violence”, a gloomy allegory that registers as easily the band’s most heavy handed composition since Scissor Sisters closer “Return to Oz”. But where that song’s terse analogy of crystal meth’s ravaging of the gay community felt like the sobering conclusion to the album’s otherwise non-stop high, “Sex and Violence” is just unnecessarily ugly. The ostentatious finale “Invisible Light” is similarly joyless, despite a spoken word cameo from Sir Ian McKellen in full, foreboding Gandalf/Richard III mode. The Scissor Sisters seem to be aiming for what would have been a wholly characteristic “Thriller”/Vincent Price homage, but the song itself is too much of a drone-y drag, with McKellen’s drippy dialogue coming off more like Common’s blathering narration on Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day rather than evoking Price’s brooding glee. It’s an apt metaphor for the whole of Night Work, actually, a party with the best possible guest list but nobody really having any fun.