Sometimes you can tell a lot about a record by its thank-you list. Does it read like the label’s org chart? Is it typed or handwritten? Are there typos? Does it, like the one included in gay troubadour Jay Brannan’s debut Goddamned, begin by insisting that the artist not be held responsible for any omissions, as it was coerced “at gunpoint,” before launching into a conspicuously alphabetized cascade of friends and influences?
Some of the people Brannan thanks are probably proud to be counted in his posse. A few, like Hedwig auteur John Cameron Mitchell, who cast the singer in his acclaimed quasi-fictional celebration of real sex Shortbus, have given him a real leg up. You could be forgiven for wondering whether noted NYC scene photographer Michael Alago is thanked for providing album artwork, though he did not. (Perhaps Brannan just finds his butch cheesecake extra tasty?) Some other sources of inspiration name-checked give a firmer impression of Brannan’s musical aspirations: Lisa Loeb, Dolores O’Riordan and Ani DiFranco are the most notable of these.
DiFranco is probably chuffed by Brannan’s DIY edge: His YouTube-fuelled stardom seems an apt 21st-century spin on the tape-sharing that built the Righteous Babe’s soapbox, though she’d probably blanch to hear a song like “On All Fours,” which affects the hands-brushing-strings fretwork that was a hallmark of her early albums and then buries it beneath Will Golden’s syrupy production and middle-school lyricism like “Nine out of 10 motherfuckers agree/That his fucking foul language is a fucking travesty/But motherfucking fuck is just another fucking word.” O’Riordan, on the other hand, might be pleased to hear echoes of her melisma in Brannan’s technically robust, melodramatic delivery on otherwise unassuming songs like “Half Boyfriend.” And Loeb is probably the clearest touchstone for the delicately wrought (if somewhat rote) folk-pop here, though Tracy Chapman must wonder which gods she pleased to earn being left off the list.
Goddamned is a bit of a conundrum. Alternately earnestly doe-eyed and profanely juvenile, one can easily imagine its target demographic: a small army of blossoming queers hungry for pop music in the key of homo. Some such listeners will doubtless find Brannan’s fuck-studded sexual frankness honest instead of gimmicky, though one hopes that they’ll eventually find their way to DiFranco’s Living in Clip.
In fairness, Brannan proves here and there that he knows his way around a hook: “Can’t Have It All” is both catchy and nearly free of cringe-worthy sentiment, and “At First Sight” sports a sticky melody. And if his lyrics often tip over into absurdity (“Your text messages were like no-calorie food for my soul”), at least they also take memorable chances. But his musical choices are often predictable, and his message often troubling, as on the absolutely wretched, politically tone-deaf single “Housewife,” where Brannan unironically longs to claim a pernicious misogynist archetype for his very own. So while it’s clear that Brannan is a talented and tenacious guy, it’s also impossible to recommend Goddamned. Hopefully he’s capable of escaping the great Starbucks of the soul from which it emanates.