Darren Hayes review, Homosexual: A proud and simple reclamation

Darren Hayes in a promo shot for his new album, ‘Homosexual’  (James Reese)
Darren Hayes in a promo shot for his new album, ‘Homosexual’ (James Reese)

“Yes, baby I’m a homosexual,” sings Darren Hayes over the shimmering Eighties pulse of his first solo album in a decade. This may not seem like much of a newsflash from the man who’s been married to his partner, Richard Cullen, for 17 years. But in recent interviews, the former Savage Garden frontman has spoken tearfully about his most successful years being in the closet, then straight-washed by the music industry when he found the courage to come out.

Shooting the video for his last single, “Insatiable” (2012), he’d been told he looked “too gay”. Now 50, he found himself watching artists such as Troye Sivan and Lil Nas X “just arrive as their authentic selves”. He realised how angry he was that his hard-won self-expression had been “extinguished by men in suits”.

While the title of his new record, Homosexual, is a proud and simple reclamation of the word that once scared Hayes, the densely packed, slow-burning songs (most of which clock in over five minutes) tell a longer and more complicated story, one that goes back to his childhood. On “Let’s Try Being in Love”, he flexes his sweet falsetto for feelings that spin from “teenage passion” to “middle-aged despair”. The synths fizz through a nervy, pounding beat as the questions pile up: “Am I on my own? Do I dare to speak? Will I die alone? Am I five decades? Am I 24?”

There’s a little Jimmy Somerville in the way his voice swoops and soars over the neon dancefloor. At other times, he channels the stubble-grazed sighs of George Michael and the whoops of Michael Jackson. There’s even a spoken section whose rhythm mirrors Neil Tennant’s on “West End Girls”. The vocal chameleoning adds to the sense of an artist reaching into pop’s pick’n’mix for an identity.

On “Music Video”, he mimics a female vocal to assume the personality of the homophobic high school principal who bullied him as a child. Over a sashaying, shoop-shoop beat he taunts: “Oh Darren Hayes, you’re a little fairy aren’t you/ If I catch you playing with the girls again, you’ll be in detention.” Later a classmate, Mike, will threaten to break his nose. The events are dated: 1982, when he was 10 years old. 1984, 12. With so many kids today fetishising the “future nostalgia” of the Eighties, it’s nice to hear from somebody who actually remembers that the aerobic chart music and fantasy films offered an escape for those struggling with a far less liberal culture. And here, Hayes yearns to slip into a music video “where boys wear make-up” and “girls have names like Billie Jean/ We dance in front of my VCR/ Steal a DeLorean, never look back again.”

Hayes doesn’t quote randomly from the Eighties. Sonic nods to songs such as Womack & Womack’s “Footsteps” and Pat Benetar’s “Love is a Battlefield” are deployed for emotional resonance. When Hayes takes issue with his violent, homophobic father on “Euphoric Equation”, he builds a melody from the bones of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach”. Hereditary struggles with mental health are addressed with grim clarity on the murkily melodic “Poison Blood”. Then more histrionically over the cluttered retro-arcade bleeps and squelches of “Birth”, he sings: “There’s a creature inside me/ All sticky and black/ Squirms like an octopus/ With the teeth of a rat/ All it wants is to be heard/ But what if I don’t wanna give birth?”

Casual listeners might think these songs are all about satiny surfaces. But they’re slyly and cleverly stitched. And Hayes has filled them full of searching heart. On the title track, the man whose biggest hit in the Nineties was a call to “Black Out the Sun” describes finding a love that feels like a much warmer sun coming out. “The feelings are consensual,” he breathes, “The chemistry is mutual/ The mood is homosexual.” It’s a triumph.