While we think of the ’90s as a period when Hollywood at last saw potential profit margins in marketing toward gay culture, at the mass pop level this meant feasting on crumbs like Will & Grace.
So those who didn’t live in the era of the homogenization of college and “alternative” radio can’t understand what relief Imperial Teen represented. “You’re One,” the first single from their 1996 debut Seasick, queered the stop-start dynamics for which Nirvana had gotten undue credit. “You kiss me like a man, boy,” Roddy Bottum cooed with deadly seriousness while drummer Lynn Perko-Truell repeated the title. Keep in mind: Bottum had been the keyboardist for Faith No More, whose most subversive pop moment was letting a fish flop itself to a grisly death in the “Epic” video (whose queerness, given FNM’s adeptness at posing, looks more obvious in retrospect).
As dense as a sugar crystal and as sweet, Imperial Teen’s songs follow no one’s template. As far as I can hear, the quartet has inspired few critics to reach for the useful hyphenate “Imperial Teen-esque.” Their sixth album, Now We Are Timeless, their first in seven years, benefits from a thicker mix that toughens the crunch of their guitars and the unabashed swish of their keyboards; it confirms their mastery of a sui generis queer pop punk, albeit devoid of surprises. “Place your order at the counter/Sit down if you’re so inclined,” they declare on “We Do What We Do Best,” a polite stomper that might double as a manifesto if this quartet didn’t think manifestos were yucky and unambiguous.
Treating the microphone as a revolving door for its members has produced two decades of gender parity and given a welcome squish to sexual roles. On Now We Are Timeless these roles have conventionalized ever so slightly. “The Girl” might have been sung by Bottum or guitarist Will Schwartz on earlier albums instead of the wonderful Perko-Truell. Yet Imperial Teen retain their talent for what George Clinton once called dancing their way out of their constrictions; their happy songs tremble with rue, their sad ones insist on bopping (Pet Shop Boys probably understand). A mournful synth line courses through a track in which they repeat “Now we are timeless” as if attempting to cheer themselves up. We believe it, they might believe it, but why, they argue, get up in our faces about it? Flirting with ephemerality for the sake of reminding us about what’s at stake, Imperial Teen remain very necessary.