NOW HEAR THIS! Scott Free: "The Pink Album (A Pop Opera)": CD Review

     Chicago-based singer/songwriter Scott Free is an award-winning musician, whose achievements include being awarded the title of OUTmusician of the Year 2005.  Mr. Free, however, is not solely a musician.  A tireless crusader for GLBT rights, Free is a superior example of how art and activism can go hand and hand; no doubt, if you ask Mr. Free, they should go hand and hand!  His music has spotlighted (often in a deservedly confrontational, hard-hitting way) many of the causes which have affected our community, most predominantly HIV/AIDS, the struggle for equality, and queer representation in the media.  Like it’s predecessor albums, “The Pink Album: A Pop Opera” boasts superior lyrics, instrumentation, and production values.  The new album, however, is not solely Free’s creative expressions; it’s his sprawling, musical retelling of stories from the most intense years of GLBT history: good, the bad, and the ugly.  One may wonder just how much of Scott Free’s “The Pink Album” is autobiographical.  As a writer who’s familiar with Free’s unique bio, I’d say the answer is: a lot of it.  But indeed, Free has always had his finger on the pulse of our community… and so, many of the emotions conveyed in “The Pink Album”– from loneliness and alienation (“Like A Girl” and “Alone”), to fear and anger (“GRID”, “Act Up”), to sexual ecstasy (“Happy Again”), and more– will strike a chord with the community at large, from Chicago to Saskatchewan and beyond.  There’s also a very palpable feeling of the time period which Free is representing.  (For example, he makes a reference to the 1970’s gay magazine “After Dark” in one song, “Alone”; and the chant of “Act Up, Fight Back!”, so emblematic of the AIDS activism of the late ’80’s/early ’90’s, is the basis of another song.)  Though “The Pink Album” features more moments of tragedy than comedy, Free’s musical magnum opus has true moments of much-deserved pure joy (The invigorating “Equal”, with dazzling musical touches alongside provocative lyrics, is a true love song for 2008 and beyond.); like the real-life history of our community, stellar highs have come alongside crippling lows.  Although almost all of the 16 songs can stand on their own, “The Pink Album: A Pop Opera” must be listened to in its entirety, from start to finish, for maximum effect.  Scott Free uses different moods and musical styles for each song; the album is a true mosaic.  In addition, it would not be hard to envision Free’s project as a live musical event (Ambitious producers out there, are you listening?!)  So where do we start in reviewing Scott Free’s latest project?  Well, at the beginning, of course!
     Almost every gay man or lesbian, before they may even know they are gay or lesbian, knows that as a child they were “different”.  In the album’s first song, “Like A Girl”, Free sings about being mercilessly teased, ostracized, and worse (being beaten up and kicked down a staircase) for acting “like a girl”.  The song in the same vein as Free’s well-known “Another Day of Cruelty” on his previous album, which spotlighted the abuse of queer high school kids.  It’s an area where even the proudest of us wouldn’t be bold enough to revisit.  In the next track, “The Boy in the Last Pew”, we get the first mention of the word “homosexual”.  Sadly, it’s in the form of chastisement from the religious right, as Free recalls the all-too-familiar, tired banter of modern day religious persecution of gays, in part via a recreation of a Bible-thumping televangelist.  The heavy, dark melody of this track is appropriate; Free actually creates what personal torment would sound like.  If realizing you’re queer is the first struggle, then dealing with the subsequent feelings of loneliness and isolation come next… and “Alone”, the next track, goes there: “I’ll live in some city, alone; Some small high-rise apartment. Strewn on the coffee table are wilting flowers, And copies of After Dark magazine; I’ll be seen as the pampering uncle, Carrying presents at Christmastime; Nieces and nephews will fall in line, Till I go back home…”  Again, Free superbly creates the music to match the emotions expressed in the lyrics. But the music gets upbeat– frenetic, actually– with “This Is Me”, seemingly a song about the irreplaceable joy of the first same-sex sexual experience (Dare I say “first same-sex orgasm”?!)  the song expertly conveys the simultaneous feelings of forbidden ecstasy and first-time anxiety.  The (ahem…) climax comes when Free declares the song’s title: “This is me!”, which is clearly a turning point of the album.  “Happy Again” is droning, somewhat alienating club-flavored music, which Free has said is the music which many gay men often identify with sex clubs and other venues where carnal desire takes over.  Indeed, when Free asks “Will I ever be this happy a-gain?!”, we wonder if he’s singing about sex, drugs, or both.  Under the smoke- and alcohol-blurred visions the song provokes, there’s indeed an aura of freedom and escapism.  For the high-energy “Mr. Right”, Free adopts a neo-swing sound (Think Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot”).”Free” is the album’s pinnacle, the song on “The Pink Album” that best stands on its own. The deceptively simple lyrics (“They taunt me because I comfort you, They sneer at me because I smile at you; The laugh at me because I cry with you, They hate me because I love you…When will this be, all in history? When will we be free?…”) feature guest female vocals courtesy of Carrie Lydon alongside Free’s deadpan delivery, with accents of harmonica and violin.  “Free” deserves to be an anthem of GLBT equality for the new generation.
     As anyone who has lived through the ’80’s will testify, the emergence of HIV/AIDS in that decade was an incredibly emotional, tense time period for our community.  With “GRID” (“Gay Related Immune Deficiency”, the name originally given to the “new disease” which would later be known as AIDS…), Free adopts a post-“Rent” rock opera style that will make listeners gasp with its intensity.  In less than three minutes, the song covers the whole range of emotions– fear, anxiety, hysteria, and anger (mostly at the government’s blatant failure to respond)– that marked the early stages of the epidemic.  It also throws in a seemingly endless chain of all the AIDS-related lexicon that the newspaper headlines screamed at us back then.  While the AIDS song “Death Toll” has Free using a “simmer and seethe” vocal style to express the anger and frustration of the situation at large, the provocative “Better” is a more personal look at the epidemic, presumably one man’s experience with the dark cloud of AIDS moving into his life: “All my hope it sweat out of my body, Along with my dreams; And what was the point of my life. Why was I here? What did it mean; And I can’t pretend anymore, And I know my time is now; How could this have been allowed?…” It’s a reminder to all of us that while we look at the disease in terms of our community, we can’t forget the individual faces of HIV.                 
     “The Pink Album: A Pop Opera” is a passionate journey: a journey that will make some of us revisit and make others further explore our issues: coming out, society-induced homophobia, self-acceptance, the need for community awareness, the many faces of tragedy, and some very 2009 issues like gay parenting (“Two Great Dads”).  It seems that by the end of the album, Mr. Free has created a unique kind of peace. The finale of the album is “My Generation”. Before you ask, it’s not a queered-up version of The Who song of the same name, but rather a reflective celebration of our pride… and its companion, our survival.  It’s summarized in the lyrics, “My generation, We fought for our loving; My generation, We built if from nothing…”  Scott Free has created one of the most lovingly realistic album about the post-Stonewall gay male experience to date.  Musically, the fine production values also assure “The Pink Album” to be one of the best records of 2008 altogether… providing the listener is as courageous as the artist in undertaking the journey. 

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