I Blame Society is the third album from New York trio The Ballet and their first for new label Fortuna POP! Unashamedly “sissy” and explicitly queer, The Ballet marry the DIY ethos of the Hidden Cameras with the wry poeticism of The Magnetic Fields to create literate, infectious pop gems.
I Blame Society is a continuation of the lyrical themes and songwriting style found in the band’s two previous self-released albums (Mattachine!  and Bear Life! ), though with slightly pared down arrangements and a nuanced production, which highlights songwriter Greg Goldberg’s strengths.
Goldberg’s songwriting involves an ongoing process of refining a musical idea to its most potent, expressive, and interesting form. For example, album opener "Alright" revisits the psychedelic-inflected pop of "I'm Going Through a Personal Transformation" (from their 2nd album, Bear Life), while "Difficult Situations" offers a sonically pared down variation on themes also elaborated in "Kitty” (also from Bear Life). Inspired by Stephin Merritt’s body of work, Goldberg aims to produce sonic and melodic interest using a restricted compositional palette in such a way that five songs with similar structures all sound markedly distinct. For example, a number of songs on I Blame Society are built around a “1-5-4” chord progression, with variations in melody, tempo, instrumentation, production, and accompanying lyrics. In addition to citing Merritt as an influence, Goldberg draws from an array of pop artists and periods, from 60’s bubblegum to 80’s synthpop and 90’s indiepop, fusing these in sophisticated and novel ways which rewards repeat listening.
Avoiding autobiographical or confessional modes, Goldberg nonetheless mines his own psychological constitution and intellectual interests to craft songs whose overt musical prettiness is often contrasted by a dark and complex subtext. Like Mattachine! and Bear Life, I Blame Society addresses a number of queer themes, offering a nuanced and refreshing perspective on contemporary queer issues. In response to the current movement for marriage equality, for example, “Meaningless” contains a succinct critique of the institution of marriage, while “Turn You” takes seriously and romanticises the idea that one might be “turned gay,” in opposition to the more common formulation of queerness as something that nobody can, or would, choose. Other tracks such as "Too Much Time," "Is Anybody out There?" and "Difficult Situations," subtly balance queer melancholy with self-deprecating humor and stubborn utopianism.
In an age where Scissor Sisters can get a song with origins in the New York drag scene onto Strictly Come Dancing and performed by Sarah Jessica Parker on Glee (Let’s Have A Kiki), the concept of a “DIY queer band” seems almost quaint. Sexuality has always loomed large in the work of The Ballet, a trio who also hail from New York and take great pride in their outsider status. 2006’s charming debut Mattachine! laid out the band’s stall with an opening song about a Gaydar hook-up and featured the self-explanatory Cheating On Your Boyfriend.
It wasn’t all about sex, however – the presence of infectious anti-war track I Hate The War signalled that this band’s notion of queerness was a more pervasive affair, extending into the realms of radical politics and challenging mainstream society. In this way they owed more than a musical debt to their obvious antecedents The Magnetic Fields and The Hidden Cameras, bands who similarly are as familiar with the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as with the lo-fi indie scene.
Those two bands have, of course, moved beyond their origins to build wider followings and in the process have helped pave the way for the mainstream success of unabashed queer acts such as the aforementioned Scissor Sisters. If such cult success has so far eluded The Ballet, third album I Blame Society indicates that they have an eager ambition to step up to the plate. Indeed, in contrast to the CD-R self-distribution of their previous records this album is on label Fortuna POP!, home to such indie-pop favourites as Darren Hayman and Allo Darlin’.
It’s notable, then, that while the title of I Blame Society may allude to The Ballet’s radical sensibilities the music within is easily the most mainstream they have yet put their name to. This manifests itself not only in their most accomplished production to date but in lyrics which are never as direct as they have been previously. Meaningless, for example, has a nuance which is easily lost if you don’t know the band’s history. It opens with lines which allude to the gay marriage fight in the United States (and beyond) – “I’ve got no wedding dress, I’ve got no diamond ring… I guess my love is meaningless”. These lines could easily be taken as a standard plea for ‘marriage equality’ but, as the song expands to more existential questions of life, it becomes clear that singer Greg Goldberg is actually celebrating the freedom which comes with the absence of imposed definition and structure. It’s a song about queer liberation and with this in mind its shuffling gait and ’60s girl group backing vocals take on a greater resonance.
This subtext is present throughout I Blame Society but for the most part it’s obvious that it’s an album intended to be heard by people previously unaware of The Ballet. Its lyrics are carried in big, confident pop songs which fizz with melody and frequently manage the tricky balancing act of being generally appealing while addressing specifically queer themes. Too Much Time, for example, concerns the homophobic religious right yet comes on as quirky ‘us against the world’ anthem, its burbling synths and xylophone proving irresistible. The intriguing Turn You, meanwhile, is appealingly dynamic while offering dark lyrics like “I’m gonna make you sick like me, I’m gonna set your body free”.
The opening Alright makes the dash for more success instantly obvious, roaring out of the gates with pounding Motown-esque drums and strings which recall the brief liaison between McAlmont & Butler. Even more commercial is Feelings, the kind of ’80s new wave anthem which should soundtrack a film featuring Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald. It’s polished and persuasive stuff but there are moments when the lurch towards the mainstream becomes brazenly derivative – to say that Sorry pays homage to Erasure’s Breath Of Life would be putting it very kindly, while All The Way sounds like a Jesus And Mary Chain tribute band (albeit a very enjoyable one). Still, most of I Blame Society is intelligent, engaging and most importantly hugely listenable. It’s really not a stretch to imagine some of these songs soundtracking a future episode of Glee and, even if that’s unlikely, the possibility is a success in itself for such a previously niche band.
4 Stars (Music OMH)
New Yorkers The Ballet deal in what they describe as "sissy and explicitly queer" pop. The trio's third album, I Blame Society, is loaded with synthesiser hooks and serves as an outlet for songwriter Greg Goldberg to externalise his Delphian emotions. Goldberg's lyrics veer from the confessional to the rueful to, on the stand-out Turn You, overt flirtation. But amid the frequently elegant verse, the narrative is rarely fully detailed, with the listener's role extended to include interpretation of the poetical patchwork. Goldberg, with bandmates Craig Willse and Marina Miranda, apply luxurious polish to dreamy arrangements, but darkness lurks within. Admirers of the Magnetic Fields, Pet Shop Boys and the Postal Service ought to find I Blame Society a treasure trove.
8/10 (Press Association)