It’s been five years since The xx dropped an album; however, that hasn’t stopped the flow of music from the respective members, whether it be singles or EPs, and so forth. Oliver Sim is next at-bat with his debut album, Hideous Bastard–it speaks volumes lyrically but is often faint as the production by Jamie xx doesn’t boast his Sim’s vocal abilities beyond a safe zone. It’s ominous and compelling, adding layers beneath slightly mundane synth patterns. Sim noted in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Two thirds in[to the process of creating Hideous Bastard], having a good idea of what the record was about, I realised I’d been circling around one of the things that has probably caused me the most fear and shame. My HIV status. I’ve been living with HIV since I was 17 and it’s played with how I’ve felt towards myself, and how I’ve assumed others have felt towards me, from that age and into my adult life.” The album is about growth through reflection and boasting Sim’s confidence to express himself fluidly without worrying about the stigmas that underline who he is and what he has–though, without consistent production, it begins to fluctuate in its effectiveness.
On the surface, Hideous Bastard is adjacent to the known–hauntingly delivered compositions that emotionally grip you through varying perspectives, instead of the love-centric work of The xx–but the production’s consistency isn’t the most gripping. Sitting down and indulging the album, the beats never lean toward the make-or-break factor, but it’s something that aligns with preference. It sonically shifts depending on the approach Oliver Sim has to the central theme, like on “Sensitive Child,” where he notes being called a sensitive child as a kid, which has its unique connotation today. With being called sensitive today, he reflects on how that term made him feel like he got hardly acknowledged. Today, getting called sensitive may lead to people tiptoeing more frequently on what gets said in your presence; the acknowledgment may sour depending on said group. However, he fights back that notion with his vocal melodies and the production, where he’s more outspoken, playing more passionately. And Sim continuously reminds us that his songwriting ability doesn’t skip a beat, specifically in tracks like “Romance With a Memory” and “Saccharine.”
Unfortunately, there are tracks like “Confident Man;” it displaces tone with drab-avant-garde-like electronic components over slightly distinct piano keys and other percussions. Connecting to the album’s central focus–blossoming from a hardened shell of fright–“Confident Man” sees Oliver Sim singing about performative masculinity, wherein one shifts their demeanors to deflect harmful stereotypes about the gay community. There is something emotionally compelling here, but it doesn’t have smooth transitions, particularly in the second half, taking you through slight detours from this haunting sonic presence and delivering an explosive but meandering closer. It’s supposed to reflect a release from these fears, these doubts, but it doesn’t come across naturally. Unlike “Confident Man,” the aforementioned tracks and “GMT” have smoother transitions between its minimalism and modestly flirtation synth notes. Though the production continues to trek through with slightly mundane consistency, it doesn’t hinder Sim’s delivery.
Oliver Sim isn’t frenetic as he lets his vocals guide you through wavering narratives that are more like questions. “Unreliable Narrator” makes that known; his music speaks with lyrical bewilderment that floods through these questions with no answers. Like “Confident Man,” it poses the thought on why they have this facade, using personal experience to reflect his questioning. “Never Here” has him questioning his memory and how growth alongside technological advancement has shifted our perception of memory. “Can we trust ourselves to relay what we know since one couldn’t document the past as efficiently as it is now?” In the chorus, he sings: “Pictures fade, technology breaks/I know the moment don’t exist within its colour and shape/I take it in just to throw it away,” adding connotations to his sentiments. Sometimes subtle, sometimes more apparent like the ones mentioned and the intro, “Hideous,” with the subtlety heard on “GMT.” The song sees him questioning this yearning for home during an escape from seasonal depression (aka winter). He ponders this notion of missing home–as in the city he grew up in, London–which has imparted various lessons and memories, building this creative love that has bled onto his music. He has beautiful bursts of sunshine every day, but it doesn’t boast that creative juice as potently as being in London at this moment.
It’s a flurry of emotions that I wish had more impact, but as I heard Oliver Sim’s words, I couldn’t help but feel the production doesn’t do him justice. It’s focused on one sonic theme, that the few times it shifts like “Romance With A Memory,” which brings out more of a rock aesthetic. It comes with some zeal, but I felt more disappointed in the production of Jamie xx. It isn’t perfect, though I find myself more captivated by his writing and performing than the production. So, if you sit and pay attention to his words, they can become a pushing wind that you can bypass to indulge in some of the remarkable reflections Sim delivers throughout.