Shamir‘s last studio album was last year’s Heterosexuality, a collection of different genres and styles that sounded like a mixtape. Exploration of different musical tastes and sounds has been something the singer-songwriter has done throughout their career – from the club-centric dance-pop of their debut album Ratchet to the latest work, their ninth, Homo Anxietatem, which embraces some of the indie rock and 1990s alt-rock explored in Heterosexuality. Though the music represented by Shamir’s discography is a thoughtful study of American pop music, a thread brings these seemingly disparate sounds together: personal, clever lyrics and an intellectual approach to pop music. Homo Anxietatem (translated from Latin to “anxious man”) is another fantastic album that builds on the excellence of its predecessor.
Working with British producer Justin Tailor (who goes by the moniker Hoost) on the bulk of Homo Anxietatem‘s 11 tracks (Grant Pavol joins Hoost on the buzzy “Appetizer” and Teddy Thompson helms the moody “Words”). With Hoost, Shamir creates a record that takes many of its cues from the guitar-driven rock of the 1990s. There are notes of Seattle grunge, glossy pop/rock, and polished alt-radio rock. Charming touches of nostalgia include record scratches, wall-of-sound crashing guitars, and crunchy electric guitars that power through catchy, athematic choruses. The lyrics on the record are confessional, diary-like entries that tell tales of heartache and desire. There are clever allusions to queer pop culture (gay icons like Mariah Carey and Cher get shoutouts), but the record’s tone is yearning and desire – a keening desire that matches the album’s title.
Homo Anxietatem opens with a big bang: the best track, “Oversized Sweater”. A giant, expansive, generous pop ballad that climbs on crashing cords and Shamir’s heavenly vocals. Shamir writes about taking solace in a comfortable sweater, making a relatable and realistic tableau as he croons about looking for a safe space from his loneliness and angst. The immediacy they achieve comes from seemingly mundane details shared in the song’s lyrics, like “I can barely hear my Peacock subscription” or referencing Mariah Carey by singing, “I’m higher than Mariah’s head / And I was so f*cking down bad / That fly like a bird almost made me believe in Jesus.” A pleasing bombast and glossy sheen to the record belies deeply personal lyrics. This almost crystal-sharp shine contrasts with the bruised singing, like burlap and silk.
Another highlight is the exhilarating power-pop of “Our Song”. Sounding like a modern interpretation of new wave, “Our Song” has the kinds of lyrics that speak to an obsessive love – one that is bad for the narrator but is still irresistible. The dark words Shamir warbles in a trembling falsetto reflect a particularly damaging self-criticism that borders on self-loathing. When they curl their lips around the notably clever line, “And it’s so damn sick how I liked it / When you infiltrated my mind / And when I pushed for an evacuation,” listeners share the singer’s regret. And like everyone who seems to see their ex everywhere, Shamir empathizes, singing, “But even after you finally left / My body would shake all night / ’Cuz I lived above the record store / And they played our song all the time.” Who hasn’t gotten fresh pangs of heartbreak when “their” song starts to play somewhere?
Another high point on Homo Anxietatem is the poppy “The Beginning”, which has a bright, fun, funky production that directly contradicts the disappointed lyrics. “I wish I could turn back time,” Shamir muses, “Just like Cher”. It’s a gloriously punny and hilarious line that matches the witty tone of the rest of the song, which has Shamir work out their demons after a failed romance. What’s so great about “The Beginning” is, like “Oversized Sweater”, it’s an indulgently mainstream pop song with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its production, including swishing record scratches and a loping percussion. As guitars chomp, Shamir launches into the earworm chorus, “From the first kiss, I was sucked in / But you never thought for a second / That we’re so caught up on having a happy ending.” The songcraft on “The Beginning” is so strong and accomplished that it recalls the genius pop songwriting of Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, Cynthia Weill, or Gerry Goffin. If the Brill Building ever had a contemporary revisit, Shamir’s membership would be required.
Not all of the angst Shamir expresses is coated in radio-rock batter. On “Calloused”, Homo Anxietatem takes a somewhat sinister turn as the song creates disturbing imagery of the “world being sick” and the constant unease of being “plagued with bouts of fear” even when Shamir’s narrator feels “at ease”. It’s an agitated track, one that delves into the intricate fears and doubts in the composer’s mind. At one point, they ponder whether “my peace of mind / Will throw the demons off my track.” The spare production fairly crawls with a morbid dirge-like drag that builds and heightens the dread.
Shamir plays with different musical shapes and colors throughout Homo Anxietatem, finding that tone shifts and zigs and zags depending on the tempo or soundscape they and their collaborators build. On the driving dance-rock of “Crime”, Shamir is sent on a fast-paced, skipping sprint, its frenetic sound and frantic beat amping up the urgency of the tune, which the singer responds to with an anguished wail of a performance.
Oh, by the way: that voice. Shamir is an outstanding songwriter, but not enough can be said about that gorgeous voice. It’s a genderless, androgynous instrument that is soulful, tight, airy, and jazzy – capable of threading precisely around tangled song structures or lilting beautifully over shiny pop beats. It possesses a vibrato that sneaks up on listeners at the end of a sentence or phrase, sweetening a lyric or chorus or adding poignancy and melancholy.
For a record as enamored with radio-friendly rock, it’s a pretty brave and astounding choice to end Homo Anxietatem with the delta blues-inspired “The Devil Said the Blues Is All We Know”. Over the hypnotic strumming of a guitar, Shamir’s vocals recall Billie Holiday‘s pinched, pained vocals. The lyrics speak to the power of the blues and its healing, almost therapeutic power. Blues has traditionally been a genre that is defined by pain but also by defiance in the face of that pain, usually by using the music as a salve and an outlet for that pain.
In that respect, so much of Homo Anxietatem is about using guitar-driven music to excavate deep feelings of hurt, fear, and anxiety and to process those feelings through the music. Those who listened to Shamir’s previous record won’t be surprised and just how fantastic Homo Anxietatem is.