By: Jeffrey Adelson
Photos by: Megan Rooney
High school holds a special place in American culture. Its universality and significance as an experience make it a setting and theme we often return to in today’s media. It is a time when people not only undergo rapid change, but also when their adult character begins to crystallize. Yet high school also has its own significance; most Americans complete their education in high school and are introduced to social organization through its clubs and activities. It is this world of the growing pains, drama, and isolation of late adolescence that Ian Simpson, under stage name Kevin Abstract, explores in his new album, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story.
I was first introduced to Kevin Abstract by an interview in The Fader, which likened him to Frank Ocean. After listening to his new album, I can affirm that such comparisons are completely justified. On American Boyfriend, the voice of a tortured Kevin Abstract sings of the difficulties of growing up in a predominantly-white suburb with parents who reject him for being gay. Kevin’s lyrics are highly confessional and speckled with references to the specific imagery of high school: suburban cul-de-sacs, bleachers, jansport backpacks, football pads, and hanging out with friends while parents make dinner in the next room. Kevin uses this record to return to and reconcile with his troubled past experiences, utilizing several years of distance to reflect. The narrative he presents is one of escape from the world of high school and evolution towards his more mature, current self.
The first track, “Empty,” serves as a thesis to the entire album as Kevin sings of high school love, family troubles, and isolation, all themes he will return to throughout the tracklist. He ends this first song with, “Empty home / Empty, empty, empty home / I wanna be American / My family’s gone but I don’t care because I love ‘em.” Despite singing frequently about love and family, it is always in the context of lost love and rejection, particularly concerning his mother who cannot accept his sexuality. This first song fluctuates from quiet introspection to the chorus’s firm declaration of his love for his boyfriend – two tones which dominate the record.
The song “Blink” is a notable departure from the rest of the songs, as lonely guitars and discordant keys emphasize the sad and angry lines that Kevin spits in a slurred voice. The instrumental is far moodier than many of the others on this project and transports the listener straight into Kevin’s most distressed state of mind. Kevin begs to an unidentified ‘you,’ clearly intoxicated and contradicting himself in his requests; “I need companionship, I need an internship / I need a friend, I need you to hate me.” The track concludes with a sample from Brokeback Mountain, as Jake Gyllenhaal screams “We coulda had a good life together, a fucking real good life… But you didn’t want it did ya?” It is from this emotional low point that Kevin begins building back up, constructing his adulthood and present self.
The core of this album revolves around softly strummed guitars, synthesizers, pianos, electric drums and Kevin’s singing and rapping – at times somewhat distant but then present and audible at the front of the mix again. It is this blend of pop, rap, and R&B that earns Kevin Abstract’s work comparison to an artist like Frank Ocean, especially in songs like “Papercut” and “Miserable America” on the second half of this album. In “Papercut”, Kevin describes the process of finding new love and using it to start his life over despite the problems of his past that continue to plague him. I particularly enjoy this song’s mixture of high-pitched guitar with increasingly distorted vocals, creating a wall of sound evocative of 90’s shoegaze. However, “Miserable America” is my favorite track of the entire album as it cuts most directly to the themes of this project – growing up and feeling rejected by a white, heteronormative society. Yet just as Kevin sounds most worn down by the people around, him he bursts into a triumphant chorus, backed by a gospel choir, singing “I don’t care.” This lofty chorus, complete with shimmering synthesizers, is punctuated with tight verses that display Kevin’s ability as a rapper. The whole track is concise and dynamic – a true standout from the album.
In the final track, Kevin rejects the hometown that rejected him and moves on to the rest of his life, demonstrating his growth into a person who accepts himself and controls his own future. However, it is this same lingering connection to his hometown and high school years that inspires the album and gives us all a chance to travel alongside him on his path of personal growth. Though I sometimes wish the songs on this record would show a bit more diversity in topic, mood, and style, I also enjoy the dedication to the themes of high school. Drawing inspiration from Frank Ocean, I think Kevin Abstract effectively imitates his style. However, on future releases I will look for him to experiment and define his own distinct sound. American Boyfriend makes for relaxed, easy listening, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to walk the halls of high school again.
JEFFREY ADELSON is a senior in the College studying Russian language and history. He is an aspiring cultural critic with varied interests that include music, fashion, film, and visual arts. Also a textbook lurker, he is happy to talk to you about any internet-related topic.