The titular track of Troye Sivan’s long-anticipated second album “Bloom” is the exact type of song that would soundtrack the third-act montage of a rom-com. As gated reverb drums signified the ‘80s, you’d hear the vocoder-assisted, sing-song refrain, “Play me like a love song, every time it comes on, I get this sweet desire,” and our young protagonist would finally decide to accept the love he deserves. It’d be a teen film, of course, and the deliriously happy climax would take place at the prom (or some sappy crap like that). If “Bloom” were a flower, it’d be a single sweet-smelling pink rose, lying on the bed of a candle-lit room next to a bottle of champagne.
But “Bloom” is also a gay anthem in the most literal way possible. Not only is the chorus (“I bloom, I bloom, just for you”) just about the gayest possible thing that you could say to another human being, but the song is also one elaborate and hilarious graphic metaphor about bottoming. (For a more detailed analysis, check out Genius lyrics; otherwise, just visualize what “blooming” looks like at your own risk.) Triumphant in its naivete, nostalgic in its description of first love, the track will soundtrack innocent teenage boys who are still discovering their sexuality — while making them blush at what it’s really about in 10 years’ time.
This queer code switching — between pleasant pop and dirty queer content — is factory designed to appeal to Sivan’s fan base, and all over the album. In the past decade, somewhere in between becoming a popular Youtuber and starring in an “X-Men” film, the South Africa-born, Australia-raised singer had a very public coming out in 2013 and has since joined a new generation of queer artists with cult followings. From Teen Vogue, Billboard, and Paper interviews titled “Being Queer in Trump’s America,” “What It was Like Growing Up in the Closet” and “Queer Love Songs are for Everyone,” Sivan has made a career of wearing his sexuality on his sleeve.
But while the album delivers in solid queer songwriting, “Bloom” falls short of true pop greatness largely due to Sivan’s inability to sonically distinguish himself from a sea of other pop artists pedalling the same brand of indie-lite pop. A couple of years ago, National Geographic published an image claiming to be a computer synthesized image of every human man’s face mashed together, and it ended up looking like a nondescript Chinese dude; meanwhile, Sivan’s voice might as well be the computer-generated approximation of the average sad (white) male singer. Think, like, Ed Sheeran except for twink-ier. Mixed with, say, Justin Bieber with queer angst (instead of the regular kind). And Ryan Tedder on Xanax.
Aside from being slightly “alt,” the album’s only unifying sound seems to be how much Sivan is determined to sound like others. Track to track, using vocal manipulation and production tricks, Sivan tries on new colors like a pop chameleon: becoming Zayn try-hard sexy “Lucky Strike,” doing sad boy Snow Patrol karaoke on “Postcard,” and sounding like a hybrid of Sufjan Stevens, the 1975 and Son Lux on “The Good Side.” He’s even self-described “Bloom” the single as “Katy Perry ‘Teenage Dream’” pop.
Yet the referential occasionally makes way for moments of brilliance. The Ariana Grande collaboration “Dance to This” is the closest Sivan comes to crafting a signature sound, borrowing its context from Jamie xx and Romy’s “Loud Places,” while creating an intimate sonic dance floor for just two people. “My My My!” sounds like a queer boy band merged into one super-gay, shouting pick-up lines too clever not to work. The opener “Seventeen” in particular pays homage to Taylor Swift, whom Sivan recently toured with: There’s a straight line from Swift singing in her classic “Fifteen,” “When you’re 15 and somebody tells you the love you, you’re gonna believe them,” to Sivan singing here, “I went out looking for love when I was 17, maybe a little too young, but it was real to me.” But its theme is updated: The song ends up describing the story of Sivan lying about his age to sleep with older men on Grindr, evoking the deject ballads of Lana Del Rey.
Even if “Bloom” isn’t revolutionary or even good in its entirety, these idiosyncratic allusions to gay culture make it hard not to root for Sivan. No, the album doesn’t match the caliber of fellow queer artists like Hayley “Lesbian Jesus” Kiyoko, Frank Ocean, and Janelle Monáe — but the queer canon is expanding, and Sivan has clearly carved out a niche in a it. A sad boy, soft-spoken, derivative space, but a fruitful one nonetheless. After all, if straight people can have slightly above-average pop stars, why can’t gays?
Wayne Zhang | email@example.com