After a four-year hiatus, Har Mar Superstar, looking like the bedraggled fraternal twin of Lena Dunham, has finally reemerged onto the musical landscape with his latest album, Bye Bye 17, proving that if nothing else, the career of Sean Tillmann’s alter ego will be remembered for his undying tenacity.
It must have been quite a feat to hang on to his chunky, funky, oversexed, Ron Jeremy-lookalike one-trick pony, as it has bucked and reared over the last decade. In fact his mere existence should stand as a monolith of hope, for those artists who worry they won’t last the distance in the face of cultural and critical indifference. Whether he has managed to maintain his career by talent, luck, or sheer force of personality is debatable. It’s certainly not because of his chameleon-like nature.
From his debut with 2000’s eponymous Har Mar Superstar, right though to 2009’s risible Dark Touches, Tillmann has ploughed the same crass furrow: hyper-sexual pop, played dead straight, but counterbalanced by strong vocal stylings and a gargantuan helping of irony. This served to diffuse his awkward image, but it also detracted from any sense of musical ambition which he may have had, leaving him in a no man’s land between being a genuine artist and a one-note novelty act.
So after a break, Har Mar Superstar returns with a ’60s-inspired lo-fi soul sound, a new record label (Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records), the backing of a live band, and a clearly concerted effort to spotlight his vocals — a change of direction which sees him somewhat break away from his sleazy image of old, to one of a mournful crooner, ditching the synths and sex in favour of soul and sax.
On initial inspection, despite the inevitable album artwork featuring a topless Tillmann, Bye Bye 17 feels like a convincing career turnabout, as it is bookended by possibly the two best songs he’s ever produced. Album opener and lead single “Lady You Shot Me” is a foot-stomping, three-minute mission statement, full of fiery horns and soulful remonstrations. While Late Night Morning Light holds a palpable sense of heartbreak, “You kill me a little bit when you don’t answer the phone / It’s six in the morning I’m on my own,” he croons, showing a raw tenderness that has hitherto been missing from his Har Mar persona. Sadly, it’s also the shortest track on the album, running at a shade over two minutes, ending before it really gets started. Luckily, these aren’t the only pleasant surprises; “Restless Leg” and “Rhythm Bruises” echo with the vibes of Motown and Atlantic respectively, both rattling along with the slick rhythms and the tight bounce of those legendary labels. These prove that when he puts his mind to it, Har Mar can produce genuinely interesting music that elicits moments of emotional maturity and feels like something more than a cynical attempt at late, Mark Ronson-esque, soul revivalism.
Unfortunately, that’s only half the story as the lazy irony and dubious habits of his previous work soon begin to creep in, punctuating the album at such regular intervals that no amount of vintage production can hide all the cracks. From the plodding and forgettable “12:12” and “www”, which sleepwalk through the generic tropes of doo-wop, to “We Don’t Sleep”, which echoes the baseless bombast and hollow cockiness of Har Mar’s previous albums, the album’s not perfect. A particular low light is the misogynistic switcharoo of “Don’t Make Me Hit You”, which scrapes its knuckles along the bottom of the barrel, Har Mar pleading with his masochistic lover; “Please don’t make me hit you / Girl I’m not your daddy”, proving that he can still wallow in the shallow end of the pool without a moments’ hesitation.
Undoubtedly, Bye Bye 17 will be viewed as the best Har Mar Superstar album to date, but considering his previous output, is that really saying much? Musically, its vintage production sounds tremendous and vocalist Tillmann seems to have finally found a sound that more aptly showcases his generous abilities. However, lyrically he’s erratic, veering from the incisive to the hackneyed often in under two minutes, still suffering from the need to undercut anything meaningful with the same frustratingly ironic sheen that has marred his career to date. Given time to develop songs in the vein of “Late Night Morning Light”, it feels like he may have the potential to produce something poignant, but for now he’s still crippled by the same jokes that stopped being funny a very long time ago.