The double concept album/animated graphic novel/musical/Youtube series.
However, he also stated in an interview around the time the Pozible campaign was announced that:
my number one aim: to make people want to dance and sing something stupid.
Like a novel which pronounces the death of the protagonist on the first page to flag that worrying about such trivialities is not what matters, Cowell started his first podcast by outlining some of the themes:
The modern world, product placement, continuous improvement, the culture of engagement, the diminution of language, the moronisation of television, imposter syndrome, subjectivity, my career demise, the heard instinct, popularism, the death of reason, nostalgia, love, lose, tolerance and friendship.
While in the episode of Tony Martin’s Sizzletown at the end of the album track I Wanna Be The Shit You Love, a caller is used to provide the following summary:
Is this a concept album? About Marcell Proust whose real name is Wayne O’Toole. He’s a celebrity nostalgist, but then he gets retrenched and his wife leaves him and he goes on a reality dating program and falls in unrequited love with a protagonest of a Rick Springfield song. She’s busy renouncing her past and forming an anti-nostalgia resisteance movement cause she’s discovered that the government is controlling people’s memories. ANd her nemissis is a DJ called Greta the Garbo, who’s leading a rival movement to make nostalgia free again. Marcell falls in unrequited love with her as well, but then both their movements are going to crash by their own followers who distort the message for their own hateful agenda. Then the two revolutionaries realise they are in fact two sides of the same coin and fall in love with each other and invent a new movement called tolerance.
This narrative is carried through the web series. Although the text of the lyrics are often included within the clips, these videos are more than just lyrical videos. They each carry the narrative in their own manner. The style seems to be borrow from a number of places. There is a hat tip to shows like The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats), but it is way more than that. Although the representations are sometimes crude and slightly ridiculous – Cartoon descriptions? How else to describe a cartoon world? – they are always pertinent. (I will never see Osher Günsberg the same way again.) In addition to the storyline running throughout, Cowell always keeps things real by providing his own critique of his work with a running commentary in the margins.
In regards to the album, Only the Shit You Love contains Cowell’s usual witty observations on the world.
You asked us to spend all your resources
To save you from one terrorist who we created in the first place
The photocopier inquest
About which Bachelor you hate the best
The penny drop when the people up top
See the guy’s a flop and you should run the shop
Your favourite mug, your granny rug, your doona snug
Jessie’s Girl tried every answer there is to know
From Scientology to necromancy to paleo
Social media’s the new religion
Brains replaced by populism
Right-thinking folks with Nazi opinions
What kind of world do we live in
Where you’ve got to have ads about respecting women?
Funny how the better it gets to be alive the more we need coaching just to survive
If it were up to me I’d shut the gate. These refugees – they don’t assimilate
They look the same, they hang in packs. I mean – how un-Australian is that?
In relation to the concept, Cowell explained in a conversation with Anthea Cohen, that the songs came first and the album can be listened separately to the series. However, he also explained that as ideas came together, changes were made to fit the songs together.
One change to the first two Disco Machine albums was exploration of different dynamics and tempos. The usual upbeat tracks are still present, such as Here Comes the Disco Machine and Whatever Happened To Jessie’s Girl, however they are also contrasted by slower numbers, such as Old Sneakers and I Wanna Be The Shit You Love. Although I am not sure how some of these slower tracks would fit with the high octane live show, this works within the contrasts of the double album to aid in helping it ebb and flow. It never really feels like a double album.
Associated with this change in dynamics, was the blend between electronic and acoustic instruments. For example, a track like The Plot Thins begins with a pulsing synth line to then progressively build as the song unfolds, before the guitars and drums come in at the end.
Connected with each of the episodes of the web series was a podcast. This is not some Glenn. A Baker of Cowell’s time in TISM, something he has always said that he would not do. Instead it provides a means for reframing our connection with him. Although there is an intent to provide some commentary to each episode, more often than not, the podcast is really a dive into the esoteric parts of Cowell’s existence and interests. As he explains in an interview for Rolling Stone:
It ended up becoming this weird memoirs sort of thing, where I talked about my pre-fame years. And I actually had quite a lot of fun doing it. It was completely self-indulgent of course, but I made myself feel okay about it because people weren’t actually paying for this; “they don’t have to listen to this”. So yeah, I was talking about all those little desperate bands I was in, and my teenage years, and the sort of psychological context from which I emerged. I’m hoping it sort of explains why I am the fucked-up person I am.
I’d like to think that my podcast is about stuff that could happen to anybody; it’s just anybody’s life. Nothing dramatic has happened in my life. The most dramatic thing that happens to me anywhere in these 19 episodes is when Anna Block refused to dance with me at the ballroom dancing because I had cold hands. So this is the pathetic story of any person you could pluck off the street from that era.
The indulgence of so many episodes with nobody else to interrupt allows Cowell to elaborate on his recipe for music in detail. In his discussion a few years ago with Zan Rowe on the Take 5 podcast, Cowell spoke about the importance of music challenging the listener.
Use your power wisely … Treat them to an anchovy.
Throughout the episodes, he elaborates what such music might sound like, whether it be melodic bass, accountable guitar, unconventional beats, rich harmonies and a general disdain for categories. To contextualise all this, he provided a wide range of examples. By the end of the series, the playlist I collated of all the tracks referenced stretched to 7 hours.
In the end, I was not sure what I was in for when I threw my support behind Damian Cowell’s latest Pozible campaign. All I can say is that I was not disappointed. It was all something of a slow burn. In modern world of binghing, it was strangely refreshing to have something to look forward to, especially during lockdown. It has also led to a number of new discoveries, such as reading Marcel Proust for the first time. It has been interesting to read some of commentary on Proust as a lens for better appreciating Cowell’s work and Only the Shit You Love.
Proust’s goal isn’t that we should necessarily make art or be someone who hangs out in museums. It’s to get us to look at the world, our world, with some of the same generosity as an artist, which would mean taking pleasure in simple things – like water, the sky or a shaft of light on a roughly plastered wall.
I think he helps us to see the world as it really is, not only its extraordinary beauty and diversity, but his observations make us aware of how we perceive and how we interact with others, showing us how often we are mistaken in our own assumptions and how easy it is to have a biased view of another person.