A new effort from Toronto's John O'Reagan manages to be simultaneously angry, sad, sexy, and danceable.
Sad party music may sound like a weird oxymoron, but it’s also probably the most accurate way to describe the contents of Free Dimensional, the new album from Torontonian synth-popster and former D’Urbervilles frontman John “Diamond Rings” O’Reagan. The songs are catchy and uptempo enough that you want to dance to them, but they’re not necessarily “fun.”
Diamond Rings is an indirect descendent of the English New Romantic bands of the early ’80s—acts like Depeche Mode, Human League, and Soft Cell. While those influences were certainly present on O’Reagan’s full-length solo debut, 2010’s Special Affections, they’re front and centre this time around. That’s not to say that Free Dimensional is full-on ’80s cosplay. Modern production means that Diamond Rings’ sound is much fuller and lusher than its forefathers could ever have dreamed of. And O’Reagan is not afraid to throw traces of house, current top-40 pop, and even hip-hop into the mix. That said, his androgynous appearance is a little reminiscent of Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, and his voice bears more than a passing resemblance to Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. The odd mixture of dance floor–friendly beats and low-level gloom that permeates the album would make both men proud.
Free Dimensional starts strong with “Everything Speaks.” It’s one of the slower songs on the record, filled with simple-but-ominous chords and spooky, echoing snares. “Put Me On” has breakout pop-chart crossover potential. The production is slick, the chorus is catchy, and the lyrics are largely about driving in cars. “(I Know) What I’m Made Of” and “I’m Just Me” are the three most obviously club-friendly tracks on the album. Both of them clock in at 120 beats per minute or better, and they have singalong choruses and big, earworm-y synth riffs. Somewhat counterintuitively, they’re also two of the angrier songs of on the album. In both cases, the lyrics are defiant. O’Reagan’s voice takes on a certain edge that’s absent elsewhere. (You can listen to “(I Know) What I’m Made Of” by clicking on the sample above.)
If there’s one weakness on Free Dimensional, it’s that things sometimes get overly cheesy. Anyone who draws from the well of New Romanticism is going to have a penchant for over-the-topness, but Rings takes things just a little too far on the schmaltzy “Hand Over My Heart.” (“Hand Over My Heart” also features O’Reagan rapping, which actually isn’t nearly as bad as you might imagine.)
Minor missteps aside, Free Dimensional is a strong, ballsy record meant to be played at loud volumes. What else could you ask for?