Kelly and the Kellygirls' new album, The Deep Ending, closes with the couplet "I don't want to set the world on fire/I just want to start a flame in your heart." The album does indeed burn with a hot flame — despite the abundant water imagery — but it isn't just after listeners' hearts: the Kellygirls are also out to scorch brains.
The Deep Ending is not designed for casual listening. It is an anti-pop art-pop album — as opposed to a collection of songs — and rewards listening courtesy of a good stereo rather than a compressed file. Kudos to the Kellygirls for aiming for Janelle Monae instead of stooping to Katy Perry.
While billed as an album by Kelly and the Kellygirls, The Deep Ending is a very personal project masterminded by the "Kelly" part of the moniker. Themes of drowning and the sea haunt The Deep Ending throughout; something or someone, it seems, has hurt Kellly Clipperton quite badly. Despite the raucous energy and often danceable beats, there is a thread of sadness that belies the "I Will Survive" lyrics. Clipperton does love his words and occasionally there are so many of them, so many emotions being expressed, that the vocal rhythms don't match the beats and the melodies turn into spoken word — stretched and contorted to fit. A tough producer — or editor or dramaturge — would have helped.
Clipperton cedes a fraction of centre stage to guest vocalists, and they inspire some of the catchiest tracks on the album. In "Riviera," the clear voice of Gillian Margot pushes Clipperton into his upper register, while Carole Pope helps him unleash his anger in the aggressive and delicious "Vodka and Cynicism." The Kellygirls sound happiest when they romp through driving pop numbers — "Sea Dogs," "Going Going Gone" and "Swim to Montreal" — but when Clipperton eases his deep, seductive voice into a ballad like "Blackmail, Insults, Tenderness & Tears," he sounds most at home and most arresting, a sexy heartbroken crooner channelling Barry White.
Occasionally the artiness is too much — the deliberately dissonant horn lines, the quotes from multiple musical sources, hiding raw emotions behind oblique lyrics — but when Clipperton tackles a deep idea directly, it is very moving. "Leo Giamani's Arms," which closes the album (and contains the couplet quoted above) expresses longing and desire and gives a firsthand account of the dangers of fantasy over reality, that trap that many of us gay men are prone to. The slightly smutty "Lifeguards" touches on the same ideas, but when Clipperton surfaces singing in a pornstar's embrace and actually reveals his inner self, the concept snaps into focus and The Deep Ending demands another, closer listen.
Read our interview with Kellygirls drummer Cathy Marchese.