Oliver Sim
Photo: Casper Sejersen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Oliver Sim Gets Frank and Frightening on ‘Hideous Bastard’

The xx’s Oliver Sim goes solo with Hideous Bastard, which deals with deconstruction and learning to surrender to desire as a means of a resurrection.

Hideous Bastard
Oliver Sim
Young
9 September 2022

Ah, the fickle beast that is the debut solo record. When a musician breaks through under the shared moniker of their band, individualism is simultaneously discarded and heightened. The band’s exigencies swallow them, yet the group ceases to exist without their contributions and without them. So when the group member embarks on a solo project and is cast into the spotlight under a marquee that reads their name only, identity must be rediscovered and then recapitulated. The results tend to vary. For every All Things Must Pass, there lies a Lou Reed—a magnum opus vis-à-vis a magnificent disappointment.

Thankfully, Hideous Bastard, the debut solo record from the xx co-lead singer and bassist Oliver Sim, is nowhere near the latter, though it is also not quite the former. It sways and bops somewhere in the middle, resulting in a richly conceptualized LP that delivers on Sim’s enterprise into soulful pop even while it comes short of solidifying an aesthetic that suitably breaks him apart from the pack.

When the xx made waves with their self-titled 2009 debut, the trio (comprised of Sim, co-lead and guitarist Romy Madley Croft, and programmer Jamie xx) were just teenagers whose impeccably realized dynamic created a distinct dream-pop sound entirely their own. Combining the chary temperament of shoegaze with the bouncing beats of London R&B, xx’s hushed songs of goosebump-inducing yearning and emotional self-immolation made for the kind of music ripe for the soundtrack of an indie coming-of-age flick about the coolest, most misunderstood kids at school. With their whispery, strained vocals, you got the sense that it not only petrified but also agonized Sim and Madley Croft to admit their bottled-up feelings to each other, the listener, and themselves.

With the benefit of time (and millions of ardent fans worldwide, including Madonna, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé) comes confidence. While the xx’s most recent outing, 2017’s I See You, found Sim, in particular, digging into his personal history more than ever before, it’s on Hideous Bastard that his confessions arrive with true clemency. On opener “Hideous”, Sim makes a revelation that haunts the remaining nine tracks: “Been living with HIV since I was 17 / Am I hideous?” Delivered over knowingly histrionic strings and a muted reggaetón bass line, it’s a line so frank and piercing that one would assume what follows would amount to a record of pure mourning of innocence lost. 

Yet, if there’s one mood that overshadows the rest on Hideous Bastard, it’s elation. Sim has never proven the most dynamic of singers; his deep, sultry voice has historically conveyed passion through restraint, the way a flick of the eyes can say more than a zealous snogging ever could. But on tracks like “Sensitive Child” and “Never Here”, his voice stretches to heights we’ve never heard with the xx, as his palpable, unencumbered verve sinks its incisors into our flesh.

Fittingly, as a way to step into his own, Sim chooses the route of the concept album, borrowing the sheen of a mid-century creature feature with Sim playing the role of both monster and final girl. Unlike ChvrchesScreen Violence, the horror movie conceit is less a leitmotif than a framing device. As Sim murmurs about the concessions he made as a child to stifle his queerness at the narrative midpoint of the record “Unreliable Narrator”, a vocal effect submerges his pitch, transposing it to an almost guttural growl. There’s a monstrous fury that lurks just underneath his pained dejection, even before the synth brass that could just as well underscore a scene of Will Byers weeping in Stranger Things swoops in and offers a moment of melancholy buoyancy.

While his lyrics with the xx have never intentionally evaded a queer veneer, they’ve never been as direct as they are here about his experiences growing up gay. With squeaky-clean production from Jamie xx and an extremely welcome angelic falsetto from queer Scottish royalty Jimmy Somerville (another pop singer who broke from his bands to pursue a solo career) on a few tracks, Hideous Bastard tackles everything from Sim’s corporal shame to his sensual malnourishment to his spiritual emancipation. It’s a thematic gallimaufry that finds Sim wrangling a newfound sense of responsibility toward honestly articulating his emotions—the good, the bad, and the hideous.

And it’s precisely this tendency toward unbridled candor that makes it all the more frustrating when an absence of distinct character drapes over a few tracks. “Confident Man” and “GMT” drop anchor short of that one hook or vocal flourish that explodes the songs out of their heavily structured confines. “Saccharine”, a sparse, guitar-led tune about Sim’s distaste for the type of cliched intimacy that punctuates storied love affairs, hobbles along with an awkward mix of theatricality and inertia, making for a track that comes across inadvertently, well, saccharine. Embroidering a record with a dash of camp only works when its self-awareness perfectly meshes with its aesthetic proficiencies. Hideous Bastard’s lack of consistency in the matter points to hesitancy on Sim’s end when it comes to evincing his own musical identity.

But like any good slasher film, the best kills are saved for last. “Fruit”, the record’s denouement in which an older, wiser, and far more defiant Sim extends a lifeline out to the version of himself on “Unreliable Narrator”, stands as one of the best indie pop songs of the year. And the deliriously gleeful “Run the Credits” wraps things up jubilantly with some of the funniest and most brazen lyrics of Sim’s career, as he admits, “Disney princes, my God I hate them / I’m Buffalo Bill, I’m Patrick Bateman.” Why identify with the straight strait-laced role models we boys are taught to emulate when being the fabulous menace to society is so much more fun?

Hideous Bastard is an album dealing with deconstruction and reconstruction—the act of tearing yourself down and shielding yourself off from love as a means of survival, and then building yourself up again and learning to surrender to desire as a means of a resurrection. As Sim continues his path toward self-discovery and further hones his sound so it synchronizes with his individuality, the results might not just launch his solo career to indie pop stardom. They could be downright monstrous.

RATING 7 / 10
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