Just before bands stopped bothering with official websites, around five years ago, an unknown Alex Cameron made his look like dog shit on purpose. Even the URL (alexcamerononline.net.au) was clearly a joke, providing you were old enough to remember early self-build sites like Geocities and the lack of professionalism linked to them. Failing that, Cameron included a louder alarm bell in the T&Cs found there for anyone wishing to interview him. Typically, they read: “Interviews with Alex Cameron (hereafter ‘the artist’) are to be held at AMF Bowling, Randwick,” and, “Under no circumstance should an interviewer mention Alex’s teeth”.
The shtick of alexcamerononline.net.au made perfect sense alongside the debut album given away there, although there was plenty of Cameron’s backstory to get into before giving Jumping the Shark even a cursory listen. Alex Cameron was “Mr Showbiz”; a down-on-his-luck, end-of-his-career lounge singer. The industry had maybe loved him once, and now he didn’t know when to stop. He thought the website looked proper and that his name from back in the day still warranted his T&Cs. He was the type of guy whose sense of glamour only stretched as far as AMF Bowling, or maybe that was where he worked now.
The artwork of Jumping the Shark skewed reality too. It featured Cameron with latex on his face that wrinkled and aged him into this old man twenty years late to the Internet. He’d dress up like this not only when playing shows around Sydney but when riding the city’s trams too, or so he said in our first interview with him in 2016. Around that time Jumping the Shark was receiving an official release via Secretly Canadian. Cameron’s terms and conditions were still on his site but he’d stopped dressing up as an old man – it might be the last time that there was a collective agreement on how much of Alex Cameron was for real.
After a few double-takes, it was easy to follow Cameron back then. And then the wrinkles came off. Even if you knew the sleazy backstory of Mr Showbiz (and few did) Jumping the Shark suddenly felt queasy without the makeup. What a fucking loser, but an honest one we could back, slurring about living with his parents on ‘Happy Ending’ and bitterly singing about his failed talk-show career on ‘The Comeback’. As the thin-sounding drum machine hissed its simple beat and Cameron crooned and sloshed on, it was hard not to like this pathetic wash-out. And besides, the tunes – lo-fi as they were – were impossible to ignore, which, when all is said and done, remains Cameron’s true staying power.
He was right to ditch the visual character as early as he did (lest he turn into Frank Sidebottom), although had Cameron been in costume and makeup to deliver second album Forced Witness in 2017 its content might have received less scrutiny. Then again, not all misogynists and homophobes look the same, do they? And Cameron played a different one on each of the album’s ten tracks.
The men on Forced Witness were far more abhorrent than Jumping the Shark’s Mr Showbiz. They needed to be in order for Cameron to make his statement against toxic masculinity, but this collection of songs about grooming barely-legal teens online, constantly referring to woman as “pussy”, and dudes calling dudes “faggot” made a distant memory of the Alex Cameron who was so clearly pretending to be someone else.
After a couple of years on the road tightening his ironic, dead-pan act with “business partner” and saxophone player Roy Molloy, it felt like Cameron had become too convincing an actor for some to know where they stood.
Most questioned his method rather than his intent, providing they bothered to actually listen to the words he was singing. They could see what Cameron was opposing and sending up, even if he was embodying these arseholes so convincingly in the first person; but irony is often a dangerous weapon, leaving, as it does, so much to personal interpretation. Jared Richard’s article for Junkee.com – Alex Cameron, Kirin J Callinan and the Problem with “Ironic” Toxic Masculinity – put into words what a lot of us had been thinking, while Jasper Willems’ 2018 interview with Cameron and Molloy for Drowned In Sound is the best I’ve read, which discusses amongst other things the importance of context and whether releasing such music in a post-Weinstein/current Trump era is such a hot idea – something that Cameron acknowledges and defends with reason, arguing that it’s more offensive to ignore toxic masculinity than invite listeners to find the mockery in his lyrics.
As a fan of Cameron’s, I think about this stuff a lot – and whether I’m falling foul to my own liberal hysteria on the days that singing along to Forced Witness makes me feel compliant in the views of whichever dickhead is singing that particular track. I’m constantly changing my mind, but I know that it would be easier if Cameron wasn’t so deadly with a pop melody. Or if his one-liners weren’t so good. (Cameron’s use of humour can also be seen to blunt his message, especially as the best gags are often awarded to the stupidest men, and even when they’re not they make light of the situation.)
By now, you’d suspect that Cameron knows exactly what he’s doing – offended, even, that anyone would mistake him with the characters he was playing on Forced Witness, and therefore ready to fuck with us even more. It’s not quite the case on Miami Memory, which mixes Cameron’s obligatory sex gags with more of his personal life than ever before, at times threatening to unveil who he really is these days.
His official line remains that of before – that everything on this third album is as you hear it, delivered matter-of-fact because there’s no other way to deal with the truth. In a statement about the record he assures: “When you listen to these songs, and you’re waiting for the twist, or the joke, or any kind discomfort, I can assure you none of those things were there when I wrote them.” Cameron might spend the next year being reminded of that sentiment alongside a lyric from ‘PC With Me’: “Boots all shined/ I’m Santa Clause with AIDS/ Selling pornographic Polaroids/ And counterfeit shades”. Even if the discomfort only applies to the wooliest of lefties who can’t hear the word “AIDS” without feeling outrage, is the line not at least a twist and a joke?
Elsewhere, Cameron effortlessly revives his off-brand Springsteen that set the tone for his last album, by bellowing, “I got friends in Kansas City with a motherfuckin’ futon couch/ If that’s how you wanna play it,” as the chorus of ‘Divorce’. It’s in joyous, stupid, triumphant moments like this when you’re forced to stop over-thinking Cameron and go with his chest-punching indie rock. But yes, it is a joke, and he definitely planted it there knowingly, along with the following line about Elon Musk and his “cars that run on sand”.
‘Divorce’ contradicts another of Cameron’s statements about Miami Memory too – a record he describes as a shrine to his partner: actor and artist Jemima Kirke. “I wanted to stop telling stories about decrepit men, and instead offer my experience of a strong women,” he says. He does a good job of it. The title track details the couple’s sex life without blushing (“Eating your ass like an oyster/ The way you came like tsunami”) sexily bumping to a steamy drum loop that’s fitting for a record unashamed of adult pleasures. Later, ‘Other Ladies’ is practically a proposal of marriage to Kirke in the form of a brilliant holy gospel country track. Sure, it name-drops Tim Allen, but Cameron’s devotion is clear. And then there’s ‘Too Far’ – a slow, icy synth closer that sounds like a Johnny Jewel track from the Drive OST. There are jokes in there too (when he calls Kirke’s ex a “bobbing turd”) but it feels like a heart-on-your-sleeve update of a Shangri Las song before it ends with a direct spoken-word message to Kirke that is impossible to misunderstand.
Cameron doesn’t leave out the stories of decrepit men altogether. ‘Divorce’ probably references a fight in his and Kirke’s relationship, where Cameron is happy to embody a stupidly proud man, just as his career started. ‘Gaslight’ – as you can probably guess – is more of an uncomfortable listen. Sung from the point of view of a manipulative man schooled in psychological abuse, what makes it so creepy is how close it is to sucking you in with its supposed sincerity – which is obviously the whole point. The XTC-ish ‘Bad For The Boys’ goes the other way and makes its irony clear, helped by the fact that the #metoo’d men here are mentioned in the third person. In the same song, Cameron makes it clear that he is not a detractor of political correctness.
If Miami Memory is to get Cameron into any trouble, you feel that, once again, it’ll be in its tone trumping what he’s actually saying. ‘Far From Born Again’ is a song about sex positivity within the sex industry (inspired by Kirke’s friends who work within it), yet despite his message of female empowerment, he can’t help but sound like he’s sarcastically mocking the women he’s singing about. Perhaps that’s the price you pay when you live a dead-pan life as convincingly as Cameron does, or when you’ve tried to take on toxic masculinity by climbing inside of it.