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If you tried to get to know Australian indie songwriter Alex Cameron solely through his music, the chances are you’d have little idea of who he really is. Over the course of a couple albums, 2013’s Jumping The Shark and 2017’s Forced Witness, Cameron’s lyrics gave keen insight to how he sees the world and what makes him laugh, even if he was mostly singing from persona. His Springsteen-esque melodies — not to mention the frequent saxophone flourishes from “business partner” Roy Molloy — gave the impression that red-blooded American sensibilities somehow thrive on the other side of the world, and his work writing with The Killers proved the infatuation spanned generations. Still, it appeared that Cameron’s actual self largely remained out of view, only coming up for air between the lines. The beauty of his work is that you didn’t have to know who Alex Cameron actually is to appreciate the wildly smart and entertaining art he was creating.
But on his new album, Miami Memory, Cameron is everywhere in the collection. The record largely mines his real-life relationship with Girls actress Jemima Kirke and the current state of affairs in the world for material, imbuing his takes with the same irreverence and humor that has been a trademark of his relatively brief career. Pulling elements from his own life doesn’t mean Cameron is watering things down. No, within the first couple songs of MIami Memory, he both opines on the nuance of fathering someone else’s kids on “Stepdad” and details the act of making their mother orgasm through ass eating on the title track. And yet, somehow, it’s more than just a charming curiosity. It’s a lyrical miracle.
“Stepdad” manages to condense a lot of where Cameron soars on a single song. There’s vivid imagery of Cameron leaving the family behind with his girlfriend yelling at him on the way out, but he’s not without tender bits of fatherly wisdom for his assumed kids. “Don’t forget what I told you bout your demons,” he sings over oppressive foghorn keyboard blasts, “They’re just thoughts in your head while you sleep, no more than that.” It’s a lovely little thought in a song that’s not quite explicit about how serious the listener should take it, with Cameron’s penchant for quips and sly humor enough to make the listener fortify their defenses. But Cameron’s music exists comfortably in both worlds, with his statement about the song assuring that his aim is true:
“‘Stepdad’ is an anthem for anybody that’s ever been a stepparent. For anybody that’s welcomed a third parent into their lives. And for anyone who understands romance in the 21st century. The fairytale, like the typical family dynamic, has evolved. Put this song on to remember how it was, and to celebrate why it worked.”
There’s a fearlessness to how Cameron expresses himself, one that’s both admirable and terrifying. Because of his history of using characters to express himself — oftentimes with a tongue-in-cheek sleaze that’s riskier in 2019 than it was in 2013 — the same dread that crops up when a distant cousin bringing up politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table creeps over the listener when the song title “Gaslight” appears on the tracklist and the topic of “Bad For The Boys” reveals itself. But even these conversational red flags are handled with remarkable care. “Gaslight” manages to strike empathy in how a woman can be made to feel through the act of gaslighting, while “Bad For The Boys” doesn’t find reason to sympathize with those taken down by the #MeToo movement. It’s all remarkably even-handed and clear-eyed, with Cameron not shying away from being provocative, while proving more than capable with tacking treacherous subjects with surprising grace.
If anything, it’s the sonic manifestation of the songs that might put listeners on guard. Cameron writes with barroom swagger, his anthems best suited for convertible car stereos and jukebox dives. Springsteen and Brandon Flowers are both obvious touchstones, right down to how Cameron lets a phrase drop off his tongue and the way each song can manage numerous hooks. “PC With Me” is all Vegas lounge sequins and “Divorce” is highway tire tracks, both taking on the dusty corners of human relationships that few other songwriters dare explore. But it’s not just the bravery of it call that makes Cameron shine on Miami Memory. It’s that he makes the highly-specific details of his own life — however freaky and idiosyncratic it might seem to some — feel like a shared communal experience. He’d be surprised to hear that he’s not the living, breathing paradigm of human existence as the 2020s kick-off.
Cameron isn’t an ally because it’s in fashion or it suits him. One of the key songs of the record, “Far From Born Again,” seeks to take independent sex work out of the shadows and destigmatize what should be a legitimate business source, an angle that’s hardly common in the contemporary indie scene. But with its music video that includes actual sex workers discussing their career choice, Cameron’s work might serve to actually change how people think about this and other controversial subjects. There’s a sense throughout Miami Memory that Cameron is using his gifts of observation and humor in a more pragmatic sense, knowing that it’s still possible to laugh about serious subjects without detracting from said seriousness.
It’s a balancing act that would seem almost impossible to pull off in theory, but Miami Memory serves as a testament to what great songwriting can accomplish. It can change minds, change people. And who knows, on a long enough timeline, maybe great songs can even change the world. Cameron never loses his perspective in his ambition, though. “Maybe I know at the end of the day / The water’s rising and it’s hard to breathe,” he sings on the title track. In a world that seems to be crumbling before our very eyes, Cameron’s keen and inimitable point of view might be exactly what is needed.
Miami Memory is out on September 13 via Secretly Canadian. Get it here.