Every time I think about Troye Sivan’s recently released second album, Bloom, my mind flits, momentarily, to Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, a film about temptation, infatuation and longing – and the possibility of real, honest love disguising itself as one of those. For a minute and a half, under its opening credits, flower after flower unfurls in hypnotising hyper-speed – each revealing its pistil and fresh petals, and fading into the next bud, which in turn does the same.
Bloom opens with a song about a teenage Sivan seeking out men on Grindr and forging elements of his identity from the resulting hook-ups. Whether it’s on an app in the late 2000s or in stuffy parlour rooms in the 1870s, being consumed by the risks of romance is universal and timeless.
My sense is that the attention focused on the lyrics of that opening track, “Seventeen”, will outweigh anything Bloom’s nine others receive. Sivan’s millions of young fans are unlikely to bat an eye. They will be more mature about the song’s subject matter than listeners who might want to tease out and examine under a microscope any lyrics that treat relationships between men as anything but unusual – as The Project hosts Waleed Aly and Rove McManus did ahead of the album’s release,
“It’s about sex, right?” McManus asked the Perth-bred, Los Angeles-based Sivan. The TV host framed the album’s title track – which is about receiving anal sex – as “a sexy song about gardens”. An eye roll as Sivan replied “It’s about sex, yes” didn’t come but was implied.
In “Seventeen”, Sivan is clear-eyed in his retelling of his earliest sexual experiences. There might be a flighty orchestral backing track and ominous echoes to remind you of his age – “seventeen, seventeen, seventeen” – but for all his nostalgia, Sivan’s youthful rose-coloured glasses have been well and truly removed with the benefit of hindsight and quickly earned wisdom:
Got something here to lose that I think you wanna take ...
And he said, ‘Age is just a number, just like any other’ …
Can’t tell a man to slow down
He’ll just do whatever, do whatever he wants
There is no time to dwell, though – the drums kick in and a minute later it’s time to grow up and move on.
Sivan’s origin story has been told and retold for years. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and raised in Perth by Jewish parents. With acting roles in the 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine and a 2010 Western Australian production of Waiting for Godot, his credits stacked up over time, but his significant audience was online.
By the time he signed to EMI as a teenager, he’d already enjoyed years of fame as a YouTube creator. Before uploading his own music videos to the platform, he was producing the kind of homemade visual diaries, challenges, sketches and stream-of-consciousness monologues that have made others such as Shane Dawson, Zoella, Logan Paul and Tyler Oakley – with whom Sivan shared a 2014 Teen Choice Award for “Choice Web Collaboration” – wildly popular with viewers of a certain age. And, in many cases, very wealthy. Explaining the appeal of YouTubers to people unfamiliar with them is nearly impossible, but trust me: even if you don’t get the appeal – if all you can see is poorly disguised narcissism and inside jokes – millions of teenagers around the world have identified something in that vast and messy void that they relate to, can laugh at, or want to grab on to tightly.
It was on Sivan’s popular YouTube channel that he came out as gay when he was 18 years old, eager for his sexuality to never be up for speculation or interpretation as he moved into the next phase of his career as a musician. A year later, in 2014, his third EP TRXYE earned him his first iTunes No. 1.
Sivan successfully did what many YouTubers have tried and failed to do: rebranded himself as a pop star, even if he was initially hesitant to claim the label. His vlogging days might have established the audience, who initially latched on to his 2015 debut record, Blue Neighbourhood, but those fans, followers and subscribers were just his initial advocates. The music proved able to stand alone, without the listener needing a predisposition towards the artist who created it.
Blue Neighbourhood was ambitious at the time, but now, in the shadow of Bloom, reads as Sivan testing the waters and playing it safe. He didn’t allow himself to fully embrace the contagious spirit of pop, for fear that doing so would brand his work as shallow and his career as ephemeral. On Bloom, with the apogean Max Martin and his crew of Swedish hit makers behind the scenes, Sivan allows himself to boldly inhabit the role of a pop star, digging deep into the earworms and gyrating choreography and the bleach-blonde Annie Lennox of it all.
He’s mouthy, too, and seems to relish in figuring out just what he can get away with, lyrically. “Spark up. Buzz cut. I’ve got my tongue between your teeth,” he teases on “My My My!”. You can almost picture him smirking. “Go slow, no, no, go fast. You like it just as much as me.”
“Dance to This” is a synthy reminder that parties don’t need to be filled with other people. “We can just dance to this. Push up on my body … You know we’ve already seen all of the parties … I don’t wanna sleep tonight … I just wanna take that ride”, Sivan sings over an urgent beat. The track features Ariana Grande, the reigning queen of making breathy suggestions her doe eyes tell you you’re just imagining. It’s her request– “Do that thing we never do sober” – that had Waleed Aly prodding Sivan to explain the song’s deeper meaning on The Project, as though the lyrics are not as blatant as a “U up?” text sent after 1am.
But for all the horny hooks, there’s just as much empathy and regret in Sivan’s lyrics, which he only began writing this past February, so eager was he for this record to exist as a comprehensive record of this very specific time in his life.
On “Postcard”, with the help of Sydney artist Gordi, Sivan reconciles the affection he feels for a lover in spite of their flaws, and against his better judgement. “Even the sweetest plum has only got so long,” he sings on “Plum”. The track shows an understanding of just how great a threat time can be to relationships. On “What a Heavenly Way to Die”, though, it’s as if he’s ignoring – or pretending not to be aware of – those same threats, in projecting himself into a future where he and his boyfriend, model Jacob Bixenman, have grown into comfortable old age together. In these ways, Bloom finds a contemporary in Lorde’s Melodrama, an album filled with the unrestrained energy of a newly single 19-year-old at her first house party, as well as the devastating ache our narrators either couldn’t see coming or told themselves they were imagining. That second wave only hits when they arrive home alone with their ears ringing.
The fact that we still want to dance to this pain calls to mind artists such as Robyn, whose 2010 record Body Talk glistened with sweat and tears in equal measure. The Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen also has more in common with Sivan than it might seem on the surface, considering how Sivan’s past on YouTube could raise questions about his “legitimacy” and how, to some, Jepsen is still synonymous only with her breakout single “Call Me Maybe”, a pop song so ubiquitous and effective it was as if it had been cooked up in a lab. Many listeners disregarded her, considering her pop detritus, the epitome of a one-hit-wonder. Those critics likely missed – at their loss – her 2015 record Emotion, a modern pop masterpiece. It’s easy to imagine a song such as “Call Me Maybe” contributing to Sivan’s initial hesitance to go full pop, and a record such as Emotion showing him what’s to be gained by abandoning that fear. That Bloom and Emotion share a co-writer in the influential American producer Ariel Rechtshaid is no coincidence.
Bloom is bursting with hope and optimism and is a savvy and bold record. But it’s also here to remind us that there is a loneliness in even the most comforting love, one that can make every gesture heavier than it was intended and every word something to pick apart and analyse.
For all its honesty, Bloom’s greatest achievement might be that it does not require Sivan to open himself up and nakedly reveal his innermost secrets for the sake of success and relatability. It takes a kid raised online – one who is intimately familiar with the act of divulging before a camera for an audience of millions – to know just how much to give to ensure we’re hooked, while retaining the most elemental parts of himself. We can’t access those. Sivan offers an inner monologue and an archive of regret, but here he is in total control.
ART FAIR Sydney Contemporary
Carriageworks, Sydney, September 13-16
CULTURE Melbourne Fringe Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, September 13-30
LITERATURE Tamar Valley Writers Festival
Grindelwald, Tasmania, September 14-16
MULTIMEDIA Biomess: The Tissue Culture and Art Project
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until December 3
Sydney Opera House, September 13–November 3
OPERA Madame Butterfly
Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 14-15
Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, until September 15
THEATRE Hotel Sorrento
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, September 14-15
VISUAL ART Infinite Conversations: Asian-Australian artistic exchange
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until September 9
MULTIMEDIA Hello World: Code and Design
UTS Gallery, Sydney, until September 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 8, 2018 as "In bloom".
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