Thirty-five years after its initial release, it’s hard to grasp the critical invective that followed this artist’s solo debut. Taken on its musical merits, this 1973 release is a gem: an inspired album of glam-rock that drank deeply of Bowie’s theatricality, Queen’s grandiosity, Lou Reed’s decadence, and T. Rex’s trashy glamour. Jobriath even personally expanded upon the gender-bending sexuality of the times by outing himself as the first-ever openly gay rock star. Without considering the overblown promotional hype that surrounded this album, it’s hard to imagine its failure, and how the critically ignored follow-up album all but consigned Jobriath to the footnotes of rock ‘n’ roll.
Jobriath’s pop music story began the Los Angeles tribe of the stage musical Hair. He subsequently became lead singer, songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist of the Los Angeles group Pidgeon, combining stagey California vocal-harmony sunshine production pop with baroque and psychedelic influences. The group’s self-titled 1969 release on Decca failed to fly, and Jobriath languished in obscurity for another four years. Fortuitously (or perhaps just legendarily), the rejection of his audition tape by Clive Davis led to a chance encounter with industry veteran Jerry Brandt. Brandt’s promotion of Jobriath met brick walls at A&M and Elektra, and the artist was finally left to produce his own debut with engineer Eddie Kramer. Jobriath scored the sessions (teaching himself orchestration in the process), recorded in London with a full orchestra, and created a surprisingly grand and muscular rock album.
Had the album been allowed to sell itself, things might have been different, but in circling back to Elektra (and becoming label founder Jac Holzman’s last signing), Jobriath and Brandt unleashed a publicity wave of gigantic billboards, hyperbolic press (“Elvis, The Beatles, Jobriath”) and plans for a fantastical stage show that never materialized. Jobriath’s space-oriented fantasies were not unlike Bowie’s, but his theatricality was more finely attuned to American entertainments such as Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. The nostalgic piano-and-vocal “Movie Queen,” for example, speaks more to Irving Berlin and Cole Porter (whose names Jobriath would combine a few years later for his lounge lizard persona “Cole Berlin”) than to then-contemporary hard-rock influences.
But even with Jobriath’s feints to the past, the album rocks with dramatic, high-register vocals, scorching electric guitars, thundering piano, and a soulful backing chorus. The disc opens with an edgy, obsessive love song, but one that’s more Jim Steinman grand than Lou Reed (i.e., “Venus in Furs”) cold. The low piano notes and backing chorus of “Be Still” give way to more lyrical passages and Jobriath’s fascination with outer space threads its way into the lyrics. Back on Earth, the proto-rock-rap “World Without End” takes on religion, hypocrisy, prophesy and reincarnation, analogizing the latter to looping repeats of vintage films, and “Earthling” essays an alien’s point-of-view.
Bowie’s vocal influence is heard on “Space Clown” amid crashing circus sound effects and calliope themes woven into the background. On “I’m A Man” you can hear the theatrical vocal and arrangement style Ray Davies’ developed for his rock operas, with music hall dynamics instilling grandeur into the productions. Jobriath paints a poetic picture of a rainy day on “Inside,” sketching the chill, splash and soak from the confines of a warm, dry perch, and “Rock of Ages” decorates its salute-to-roots with the squealing electric guitar leads of glam. The album closes with the moody, tortured soul of “Blow Away (A Peaen for P.I.T.).”
When his grandiose tour of European opera houses failed to materialize, the dilettantish claims to rock music’s crown sparked an inevitable backlash. Stateside critics had been generally kind to the album, but UK critics dismissed it amid the surrounding hype. A follow-up album, Creatures of the Street, faired even less well, prompting Jobriath’s retirement and rendering him a rock ‘n’ roll footnote who passed away in 1983. With this reissue, the audience that never found Jobriath can now hear him outside the cloud of controversy. While this isn’t the game-changing album its publicity promised, it is a superb glam-rock album that deserved a broader hearing than it was originally afforded. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]