I was a few weeks late discovering Australian pop singer Josef Salvat’s sophomore album modern anxiety, which dropped on May 15th. While Salvat’s first album Night Swim (2015) was a critical hit in the UK and Europe, it didn’t make much of a splash in the US. But now, with everyone stuck at home and more desperate for new music than ever, I was intrigued when I saw a friend share Salvat’s single in the afternoon on their Instagram story. The album artwork, of only the singer’s head and arm visible as he reclines in a rectangular mosaic-tiled bathtub, was compelling, and my friend’s caption made reference to Salvat being a queer artist, so I was immediately intrigued.
I listened to about the first twenty seconds of in the afternoon before skipping back to the beginning of the album, knowing I was going to love the whole thing. (More on that opening track in a second). Salvat’s voice on in the afternoon is smooth, and full of romance, and the lyrics have the kind of specificity I love in pop songwriting. The track opens, “You like your coffee black and your drinks strong / and I like you / yeah I like you. / You like your hair pulled back and your nights long / and I like you / yeah I like you.” Later, he says of his lover, “You like your oceans cold and your days hot,” as well as, “You don’t like politics, but you know a lot.” It’s an instantly evocative ode to all the little details about a partner that make us fall in love, and hearing just a little of it made me fall in love with Salvat.
In the song’s music video, the singer spends the day in bed with a series of lovers, both men and women. (While much of the press around his debut album referred to him as bisexual, he recently told GCN’s Conor Behan, “I think it was overcoming identity barriers such as bisexual or gay, because I wouldn’t call myself either of those things. But I’m very comfortable with the word queer.”)
Back to that striking opening/title track. modern anxiety is a subdued, yet driving electro number about being overwhelmed by the noise of the world and trying to find yourself amidst the madness. “Last night, I was handsome, drunk, and young,” the album opens, instantly grabbing the listener’s attention. “Today, I don’t know who I’m trying to be / Last night, I was easy, free, and fun… / Today, I got that heavy back in me.”
Listening to it now, amidst… *gestures at the world*… the song feels like a salve, like a soothing reminder that I’m not the only one struggling to process the world outside my door, or inside my phone. “So I just draw the curtains and make my retreat,” he sings, his voice slightly fuzzed out, as though he’s trying to sing through the static inside his head. “Put the fan on high / my headphones in / and scroll myself to sleep.”
It’s so tempting to make this review just a list of my favorite lyrics. I’ve listened to the album probably two dozen times at this point — at slightly over half an hour, it’s very replayable — and I keep noticing new lines I love.
Salvat has an incredible ear for evocative imagery and double entendre, as evident on the sweetly nostalgic playground love, a song about relishing the infatuation that comes with a hookup. “Playground love by the swings in the third grade / Still kinda feels the same,” he sings. “Behind the shoves and the tugs and the ball games / They just wanna love someone.” By way of post-chorus, he repeats the refrain, “I wouldn’t change a thing ’bout all them boys.”
On no vacancies, one of the songs that shows off his vocal chops best, he croons, “There’s no vacancies / for freaks like you and me / we’ll build our own fantasy… / When you’re trying to hold off / that crushing monotony / You can escape with me / to this place that I go.” It’s lyrically reminiscent of MUNA’s I Know A Place, about creating a safe space for each other in a world where we don’t fit in.
alone, a dark breakup song about admitting your faults while begging a lover not to leave, he sings, “Secretly I’m not as sorted as I say I am / I’m bursting at the seams waiting to hear again how great I am” before breaking into a falsetto plea: “How can you leave me / just right when my head and I can’t be alone?”
Just as good as the lines themselves is the voice delivering them. As he slides effortlessly from his normal register to his head voice, slips in and out of vocal distortion effects, Salvat wrings every drop of emotion from his lyrics. paper moons, the most recent single from the album, is particularly full of pathos backed by a throbbing electro beat. He has spoken in several interviews about how the song was written about a friend who was struggling with an addiction to chemsex, constantly calling him for help early in the morning after a difficult night out. He says the song was inspired by how difficult that relationship was to sustain, no matter how much he loved his friend and wanted to help. And on the chorus, his delivery of “You keep on asking me to save you but it never works / I don’t know why you’re so committed to your pain” is just devastating.
Yes, I’m late to Josef Salvat, but I’m fully on board now. modern anxiety, with its collection of songs about queer identity, love, heartbreak, loneliness, and sex, is one I’ll be returning to for a very, very long time.
By Eric Langberg