Troye Sivan’s rise to something resembling pop stardom — to pop-almost-stardom — has been pretty conventional. Sivan, born in South Africa and raised in Perth, got his start as a 12-year-old on the Australian version of Star Search. From there, he became a child actor. At 13, he played the younger version of Wolverine in the truly garbage superhero movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine. At 15, he began co-starring in a whole trilogy of South African coming-of-age movies called Spud. Sivan was a popular YouTube personality before he signed with a label. His first album had a duet with Alessia Cara. His second album has a duet with Ariana Grande. He’s guested on singles from EDM producers Martin Garrix and Zedd. Thus far in 2018, he’s performed on Saturday Night Live and as a special surprise guest at a Taylor Swift show. He dates a model. To the extent that there is a book for mainstream pop stardom in 2018, Troye Sivan is going by the book.
But Sivan is also something we’ve never seen before. He is a young gay man who is not letting his status as a young gay man interrupt his rise to something like pop stardom. That’s new. We’ve seen plenty of gay pop stars, but towering figures like Elton John and George Michael had to live in the closet for years before coming out to the general public. In the 2013 video where Sivan came out to the public, he admitted to some anxiety about how the public would look at him, but since then, he has not run his career with anything resembling anxiety. He’s sung love songs to men and danced with men in his videos. And Bloom, his brand-new sophomore album, is pretty much a straight-up sex album, one that holds back very little.
That’s worth celebrating. It’s utterly badass for someone like Perfume Genius or Kevin Abstract to be vocally out in relatively underground contexts. And yet it might be even more valuable for someone like Sivan, someone who’s come up through the mainstream-pop system and who is shooting for arena status, to be this out, this proudly. Looking at it from the outside, Sivan’s willingness to be who he is hasn’t hindered his pop career. If anything, it’s been a boon. That’s worth celebrating, too. Bloom is an important record, but that’s not why it’s in this column this week. It’s here because it’s also a really good record.
One of the really good things about Bloom, paradoxically enough, is the way it takes Sivan out of the realm of arena-pop. Sivan has recognized something that’s been happening in recent years: Stars are taking themselves out of the pop-radio conversation. Instead, they tend to take whatever early bump they can find from a big song or two, and then they push their voices into different directions. They get weirder, and more personal, and more into deep and nerd-centric craftsmanship. That’s the Lorde/Carly Rae Jepsen/Charli XCX trajectory. Sivan hasn’t yet had some big pop-radio success, at least in the US. His biggest hit over here, 2015’s generally irresistible “Youth,” topped out at #23. (That’s really good, but it’s not “Royals” or “Call Me Maybe” or “Fancy.”) And yet Sivan is still following that same trajectory, releasing a total boutique-pop album that’ll probably win him a larger and more devoted audience than a down-the-middle EDM-pop record might’ve done.
It’s not like there’s anything experimental about Bloom. Every song on the album, including the ones that are unapologetically about gay sex, could play over H&M speakers without editing. But the songs are deep and rich and confident, and they largely eschew the big-chorus grandstanding that you might expect from a radio record. (“My My My!,” the single to get the first big push, is a bit of an exception. “Dance To This,” the Ariana Grande duet, is not.) On plenty of the tracks from Bloom, Sivan works with the sorts of Swedish producers who already have co-writing credits on Taylor Swift songs. But he also works with boutique-pop expert Ariel Rechtshaid and mutant-dance beatmaker Jam City. All the songs have a bunch of different writers, and yet all of these people seem united in their vision and purpose.
Bloom opens with “Seventeen,” a song about an encounter with an older man who Sivan met on Grindr when he was still a child. Sivan has since said that he doesn’t condone the older man’s actions but that he wants to tell “that true story.” The important perspective on that song, to Sivan, isn’t the older guy; it’s the kid who is seeking some kind of connection. And there’s an unmistakable sense of romanticism to it: “I went out looking for love when I was 17 / Maybe a little too young, but it was real to me.” I get a little queasy about that song, about the idea of hooking up with an older man as a rite of passage, but maybe that’s my own straight privilege at work. And the song works as a kind of thrown gauntlet, an announcement that everything that follows will be just as truthful and unvarnished.
Most of what follows is love songs — some of them about sex, some of them just about scenes of blissful domesticity. “Dance To This” is about staying in, about dancing around the kitchen to whatever’s on the radio. “My My My!,” on the other hand, gave Sivan the chance to sing the lines “I got my tongue between your teeth” and “you like it just as much as me” on American broadcast television. The most affecting of the album’s love songs might be “Lucky Strike: “My boy is like a queen / Unlike one you’ve ever seen.”
As a singer, Sivan has a lithe and confident grace to him. He can be flirty and emotional at the same time. He’s a natural baritone, but he leaps up into upper registers with an easy elasticity. You can almost hear his background in acting. Like Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, another young gay man who also acts and who’s currently flirting with full-on stardom, Sivan is an easy communicator. His line readings often communicate more than the lines themselves. On something like the fond breakup song “Plum,” you can hear a warm sadness in his voice. It’s not a kiss-off; it’s an affectionate goodbye. That’s a real situation, and a complicated one to convey in the space of a single pop song, but Sivan pulls it off.
And Bloom is full of rich, finely considered musical choices that match that voice beautifully. “The Good Side” has acoustic-guitar string-squeaks and light Air-style vocoder. “Animal” has all these deep, expansive, lovely synth sighs and these grand, echoing Phil Collins drum-thuds. “Postcards” is a pretty bare song, mostly just a florid piano and some multi-tracked backing vocals, along with a guest vocal from the Australian quasi-folk singer Gordi, but it sounds symphonic anyway. Even on “My My My!,” the album’s most immediately obvious jam, everything has been exquisitely arranged, and someone has put serious thought into every last vocal filter and keyboard sound.
I don’t know if Bloom will make Sivan much more famous than he already is. I’m terrible at predicting this kind of thing. But it’s a smart, thoughtful, engaging pop record, and it gives Sivan a chance to project star quality all over the place. I know it should make him much more famous. And I know that the whole pop sphere is already a whole lot richer with him in it. Hopefully, he gets to make a whole lot more records just as strong as this one. And hopefully, he gets to be however famous he wants to be.
Bloom is out 8/31 on Capitol/EMI Australia.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Thou’s overwhelming doom opus Magus.
• Saintseneca’s proggy folk-pop odyssey Pillar Of Na.
• Justin Vernon/Aaron Dessner project Big Red Machine’s self-titled debut.
• House Of Feelings’ twitchy, guest-heavy DIY dance-music monster New Lows.
• Menace Beach’s catchy, spacey post-punker Black Rainbow Sound.
• Muncie Girls’ incisive, tuneful punker Fixed Ideals.
• IDLES’ jagged postpunk protest Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
• Wild Nothing’s shimmery indie-popper Indigo.
• Anna Calvi’s theatrical, expressionist Hunter.
• KEN mode’s metallic noise-rocker Loved.
• Mogwai’s score for the sci-fi movie Kin.
• Alkaline Trio’s slickly gruff pop-punker Is This Thing Cursed?
• The Roger Miller tribute compilation King Of The Road.
• Iron & Wine’s Weed Garden EP.
• Babygirl’s Lovers Fevers EP.