A new Simon Curtis album in 2023? What more could a pop music fan ask for! Nearly thirteen years ago, Curtis debuted with 8Bit Heart — a wildly innovative and raw, personal album (especially for a debut.) What was most insane about the debut was that it was made available as a free download on Curtis’s website, and he co-produced it.
At the time in 2010, it genuinely felt crazy that such good music was just a click and download away (and it also felt crazy to see Curtis share on Twitter that the album was recorded in a “tiny basement in West Virginia” of all places.) The follow-up to 8Bit Heart, the also provocative and rave-worthy RA, debuted a year later — managing to chart in the Top 20 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronics Album chart.
Now, nearly a decade after his third album WWW was released (also as a free download on his website), Curtis is back with Angel Aura. The world has certainly changed since the 8Bit Heart days, but luckily, Curtis’s penchant for making dark, bass-heavy beats and mixing them with angelic-high vocals hasn’t gone anywhere — evident right from the jump on Angel Aura with its opening track ‘Atonement,’ a minute-long intro with a purpose.
Many album intros these days are tacked on, whether it be to have the album meet the required tracks to jump from an LP to an EP or to just have some spoken word context to the album itself — but not for Curtis and Angel Aura.
‘Atonement’ truly sets the tone here and also artfully blends into the next track, ‘I’m Not Sorry.’ Curtis is — and always has been — a storyteller, and weaving his tracks together, uniting them in a cohesive narrative has always been one of his strengths.
‘I’m Not Sorry’ is, as the name suggests, an unapologetic dance track that finds Curtis ready to be his most authentic self: “Now it’s Simon 3.0, with my middle finger up to the sky… I’m not sorry.” While 8Bit Heart and RA both dealt with the struggles of accepting one’s identity or feeling trapped in one-sided relationships, Curtis is starting 2023 with all that behind him. Angel Aura continues to explore this lease on life throughout its tracklist, and all of the emotions that come with living unapologetically.
The bridge on ‘I’m Not Sorry’ is infectious, as is its transition back to the instrumental pre-chorus. Right from Angel Aura‘s first full-length track, it’s clear that Curtis has not lost his touch.
Things only getting better on ‘Ketamine,’ which right from its intro is insanely captivating. “You’re like ketamine / so sweet, taking me down / Dark fantasy, but I think you might be bad for me,” Curtis croons about a nightmare-ish love. The song’s whispered bridge builds up with repetition and feels right at home with Curtis’s past bops.
Angel Aura transitions with the instrumental ‘SunGodSexMagic’ to a more laid-back and relaxed pace — and Curtis soon treats a lover like a god on ‘Pharaoh,’ with its romantic ‘oh oh ohs,’ and visual imagery of prophets and kings paired with sexual S&M lyrics of being a slave and tied up in chains. It’s a perfect juxtaposition that melds love and passion, creating raw, sexual tension without ever crossing the line into explicitness.
The slow-jam lovesickness continues on ‘Love,’ a track that follows in the footsteps of Curtis’s previous music by discussing the feelings of loneliness and pain that can plague anyone, but ‘Love’ brings a decade’s worth of maturity. Curtis opens up and lets the listener in to his darkest thoughts here, and the desire to be loved is almost tangible.
The follow-up to ‘Love’ is ‘Pain,’ a piano-driven heartbreak anthem. The pairing of ‘Love’ and ‘Pain’ is clearly intentional, and this is one of those small things that separates Curtis from other artists and makes him a master storyteller. All of the emotion and desire that swells up on ‘Love’ comes crashing down on ‘Pain,’ making the track even more impactful. While both songs stand alone just fine, their pairing unites them to even more powerful status.
While ‘Pain’ clocks in at an all too well 9 minute mark, it’s nice to see Curtis unafraid to experiment and not feel restrained to any type of formula for a song. ‘Pain’ could certainly be trimmed down for a radio cut, but the long runtime allows Curtis to really take a breath and be bold and blunt with his audience.
Past the five minute mark, he sings: “Sometimes I fantasize about suicide. and it kind of seems good at the time/ but then I think about it and I change my mind. When you get down to it, I don’t want to die…” Such brutal honesty is rare especially in Curtis’s genre of music, and these lyrics will no doubt resonate with the pain many feel (especially when it comes to the lyrical matter of ‘Love.’) The perfect moment to be heartfelt and tender — and Curtis nails it, as expected.
‘Pain’ makes the transition to the more uplifting ‘FAIRYBOY’, a track that celebrates the feminine and questions why society deems feminine traits so wrong for young boys to have. “Baby, you’ve got magic,” Curtis sings in his deeper register, which is just as much like honey as his higher vocals. ‘FAIRYBOY’ brings infectious synths and a chanting ‘F-A-I-R-Y-B-O-Y!’ that feels very ‘male cheerleader’ — perfectly in tune with the track’s message.
“Hold to the colors inside you, What’s so wrong with that? Nothing’s wrong with that!” Curtis sings, a beautifully inspiring message to youth that I’m sure many gay men Curtis’s age wish they were able to listen to growing up.
The cherry on top of ‘FAIRYBOY’ is Curtis’s callback to ‘Love’ on ‘FAIRYBOY’: “All you wanted was Love…” he sings, bringing a full circle moment and connecting ‘Love,’ ‘Pain,’ and ‘FAIRYBOY.’
Together, these three tell the story of a young, gay boy’s struggles to feel acceptance and find love in an unaccepting society and all the pain that comes with it — as well as the eventual metamorphosis into the Fairy Boy that wants nothing but to shield future generations from such heartache.
The religious tones of Angel Aura — from its title to some of its subject matter become even more apparent with ‘Holy Ghost.’ Here, Curtis is heartfelt once more, openly honest about struggles with mental health and seeing visions. On ‘Graduate,’ glimmers of the more dance-driven Curtis begin to shine through once more, as Curtis contemplates growing up and moving through phases of life.
The album comes to a close with ‘Rainbow’ — another unapologetic track about the trials and tribulations of growing up gay. Curtis beautifully paints a picture of one’s ability to shine like a rainbow in their own identity — despite a world that can be judgmental and full of hate: “We’re a rainbow/ Golden rainbow/ We keep shining on even if we die…” Curtis sings — bringing some bone-chilling lyrics that capture the LGBT+ community’s perseverance, especially in times where hate crimes are high and government protection feels low.
Angel Aura starts off very much in the same vein as Curtis’s previous albums, full of dance-driven music — but it also expertly transitions to show a more tender and heartfelt side of Curtis that fans who grew up with him will no doubt appreciate. While the entirety of Angel Aura may not feel like a high-energy Lady Gaga concert like his previous music, that’s all for the better. As Gaga grew in her artistry and became unafraid to slow the tempo down and open up her soul to her audience, Curtis follows in those footsteps and makes an album that lets his fans truly connect to him beyond the beats and surface level.
Angel Aura brings natural growth and progression to Curtis’s discography, connecting with his past works and carving out a bright and beautiful future. Highly recommended.
Stream Angel Aura on Spotify and all music platforms now.