Album Review: Trixie Mattel, “Barbara”

Hop into Barbie’s bright pink convertible for a detour through 1990s rock-pop realness

Drag queen musicians are a dime a dozen these days; if you’re looking to extend your “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame, then a buzzy single or two is the way to do it. Usually these songs are shameless dancefloor material that the queens can get down to during their live shows, or in the case of Alaska Thunderfuck, raunchy rap joints to match her signature sass.

Then there’s Trixie Mattel, who stands out from the rapidly-expanding crowd of drag artists and whose musical style is an unlikely complement to her colorful, over-the-top persona. Rooted in bluegrass and folk music on “Two Birds” and “One Stone,” Mattel shirks mainstream profitability for a style that is wholly her own, and one that feels organic and authentic. There’s a reason she won “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars 3,” and her impressive musical skills were certainly at play, as was her penchant for deliciously dark humor. If you haven’t heard her Christmas EP, “Homemade Christmas,” it’s time to get familiar. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” will never be the same.

Mattel’s country pastiche, while key to her early success as a musician, is largely absent on “Barbara.” After all, we can’t expect a multi-faceted drag star/singer/performer/TV star to remain static and stale. Her latest album sees Mattel branching out and practicing an unexpected genre: 1990s pop-rock.

There were hints of this bubbly pop persona in her previous work, but it was always underlined with a sense of sadness. Here, on “Barbara,” I’m not totally convinced it works. Mattel’s sound on “Two Birds” felt grounded and honest, with an almost earnest melancholy that gave the material an authenticity and artistic sentiment that’s often unheard-of in the drag world. But Mattel loves a theme, and by her own admission, her goal on “Barbara” was to channel the ‘90s rock vibes of acts like Fountains of Wayne and Weezer. She certainly succeeds in that goal, even if it feels like a cheesy left-lane detour.

The album’s first few tracks are cheerful and fun ‘90s throwbacks complete with plenty of guitar riffs and ebullient backup singers. “Malibu” is at first a welcome dose of cheerfulness, and “We Got The Look” really ratchets up the electric guitar in a way we’re not used to from Mattel, but by the time the album moves into “Girl Next Door” and “Jesse Jesse,” the throwback shtick starts to feel tired. “Jesse Jesse” in particular plays on the retro nostalgia by interpolating Rick Springfield’s hit “Jesse’s Girl,” but the callback feel flimsy and forced. Maybe it’s the earnestness of it all that just falls a tad flat, lacking the camp or cleverness that would really bring it home. They’re not bad songs, but they feel like an all-too-stark departure for an artist whose first album was reflective and melancholic.

The official lyric video for Trixie Mattel’s “Malibu”

The second half of “Barbara,” thankfully, veers the pink Barbie convertible back into familiar territory. The album’s fifth track, “Gold,” seamlessly transitions back into the more traditional banjo, drum and acoustic guitar melodies we’re used to hearing, and by the time the album moves into “I Don’t Have a Broken Heart,” Mattel is firmly back in folksy bluegrass mode. The track sounds like it was picked straight from “Two Birds,” yet it still manages to evolve Mattel’s lyrics beyond simple heartbreak and into self-assured independence. This is an important evolution in Mattel’s material, and it’s refreshing to hear.

The result is that these eight tracks almost feel like two different albums. Perhaps the dichotomy between the two halves of the album is intentional; Mattel often finds herself splitting her time between living in sunny California and spending endless days on the road, which has to be a disorienting way to experience life and all of its ups and downs. “Barbara,” then, represents Mattel’s attempt at reconciling that duality — yet ultimately struggling to find the perfect common ground. It’s a start; if Mattel continues to build on this sound, it’s sure to come closer to the mark. Mattel is a hugely talented artist, and her evolution is truly exciting to watch.

With an appropriately retrospective moment nearly 50 years in the making, the album closes by borrowing from the pages of queer history. “Stranger,” a cover of Lavender Country’s quintessentially queer country song “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” is a beautiful and cunning love song about a fiery temporary tryst with a lover who’s never looking for anything more than a one-night stand. For an artist that doesn’t record many covers, “Stranger” is a perfect fit for Mattel — and a timely reminder that while queerness has been around forever, it really hasn’t changed too much. It’s also a reminder that Mattel knows what she’s doing with this whole showbiz thing, and we’re lucky to be along for the ride.

A recovering pop music addict who’s finding his way in the wide, wonderful world of music.

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