In Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 movie The Great Gatsby, the small role of party-crasher Ewing Klipspringer was played by singer-songwriter and fellow Australian Brendan Maclean. Although it was not a singing part, Maclean was an appropriate choice. Like Jay Gatsby himself, the singer – as well as his music – might be described as a glittery shell with a heart of darkness.
Maclean’s debut EP was White Canvas in 2010. It won a handful of listener and video awards, particularly for the singles “Practically Wasted” and “Cold and Happy.” The latter may be conservative compared to Maclean songs to come, but you can already hear his fast-vibrating tenor voice and his sardonic view of relationships.
The 2014 EP Population included the single “Stupid,” which nearly charted and won lots of awards for its video. As usual, Maclean has a dismally practical viewpoint on love’s disappointments. Of course the relationship in question fell apart: “You work in an office, / and you got other offers.” That slant rhyme of “office” with “offers” is almost painful, but you have to laugh at the wit. The song bursts with sarcastic humor about knowing his lover is cheating, even as he tries to convince himself the relationship wasn’t worth it anyway. The video’s over-energized choreography, alone at an abandoned school dance, is the perfect dramatization of the song’s hollow message.
The single “Free to Love” tells you everything you need to know about Maclean’s wide-ranging sexual and gender viewpoint, not to mention his vocal range. For the verses, he uses a deep, sultry voice, but the bridge and chorus feature falsetto. The lyrics are about sexual liberation, even obsession, and the musical style leans appropriately on R&B, the genre that brought raw sexuality into pop music for the first time. This song is also a good demonstration of how much effort Maclean puts into his videos to help sell his music, as if we were back in the first decade of MTV. (It doesn’t hurt that he is a fearless, if unusual, dancer.)
While “Free to Love” is a general celebration of all types of love, “Undetectable” is specific. Something tells me Maclean appreciates an uptight industry irony found on Spotify and iTunes. Despite off-handedly describing gay sex acts, this track is not marked as “Explicit,” presumably because it contains no swear words. The lyrics are simply Maclean being honest. Sex is part of life, so of course you should talk about it!
With a piano intro that recalls Kermit the Frog’s banjo hook in “Rainbow Connection,” Maclean’s “Beat Me to It” weaves a surreal waltz. In an oddly compelling metaphor, the lyrics equate domestic bliss with having a neighborhood baker (a situation ruined when “You bought his cake / You brought him home). The video illustrates this with flour sprinkled constantly onto Maclean’s nose until it’s piled so high that a quick inhale could suffocate him.
One of the tracks on the 2015 EP Thought I’d Cry for You Forever is a spoken-word piece by celebrated fiction-writer Neil Gaiman (Coraline, American Gods). The seemingly random choice makes sense once you know that Gaiman’s wife, the unquantifiable performer-artist Amanda Palmer, is Maclean’s most frequent collaborator.
Palmer sings Maclean’s hilariously sarcastic “On the Door” on the 2016 EP funbang1. It’s a send-up of club gig life from the perspective of the performer. Friends always expect free tickets, as if the money to pay an artist appears by magic rather than via ticket sales. The song is marked “explicit” for this pithy line explaining why most people should not get in gratis, since they have nothing to offer in return: “If you want the door list, you’re pushing all your luck. / The door list is for those I want to see, undress, and f---.”
Palmer brings out the performance artist and social commentator in Maclean, as you can see in this live performance of “Glacier,” featuring Maclean in a long black lace dress. He peels off his finery to sing the biting, mournful lines about men in power: “What they want is commonly referred to as theocracy. /What that boils down to is referred to as hypocrisy.”
Also from the funbang1 EP is “Hugs Not Drugs (or Both)”. Tooth-grinding electronic pulses seem to represent the ridiculous realities of love and sex. Part of the humor comes from internal rhymes – “Let’s both get drunk and text both of our exes” – that are perhaps more interesting than the predictable harmonic sequences and upbeat club rhythms.
In total Maclean has released five EP’s so far, but his output is more about individual songs than collections. At first he relied on the music website Bandcamp, selling tracks on a pay-what-you-can basis. For the past few years he’s been using the crowdfunding service Patreon, which, he’s quick to point out in interviews, is the opposite of Kickstarter, where people give a bunch of money all at once for a particular level of reward. Instead, Patreon is a platform for subscribers willing to donate a certain amount per project for an ongoing enterprise. It’s frequently used by literary journals, but musicians are catching on.
For $1 per “creation,” fans can subscribe to Brendan Maclean, and they’ll get access to songs, videos, even a live EP made exclusively for Patreon patrons. “No one will get more stuff than anyone else,” he explains in his profile statement, “everyone will just get more music. It's artistic communism at its best!”