Listening to Bloom, Australian singer Troye Sivan’s sophomore effort released a week after Ariana Grande’s excellent Sweetener, we have to wonder; has pop sucked the soul out of mainstream rap this year. At least in the realm of the album, pop-stars have been delivering while rappers, although clinching many Billboard Hot 200 top spots, are releasing cynically bloated or too-short albums that test the limits of the word “spare”; looking at you, Kanye. At this point in the year, both underground and mainstream pop releases seem to represent the vanguard with comparatively focused and low-key efforts; Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Grande, and now Sivan have illustrated the power of the mainstream pop album in capturing the nebulous nature of modern youth. We are, as we say, getting our lives.

Bloom is interesting because it feels like the conscious result of this wave and the peak of it at the same time, a phenomenon exacerbated by its savvy re-upholstering of old sonic tricks into shiny new chimeras of tasteful electropop. It is also interesting because he is the only artist from this youthful crop who is gay. Even though Sivan is a lot bigger than his YouTube days, he frustratingly still flies under the radar. Although relatively low-key in the world of pop, critics hail have hailed Bloom as the pop album of the year so far.

“Sivan is another cisgender white gay man making music that is just anonymous enough to be permitted to exist in a mainstream space”

The album opens with “Seventeen”, a widescreen anthem about youthful naivety in our first forays into love, set to a backing of highway-cruising bombast. The potential creepiness of the description of the age difference between Sivan and his lover is thankfully offset by sweetness and an assuredness in the way he looks back at this time with nostalgia and a healthy distance. “Plum” is as radio-ready as they come and showcases Sivan’s way with a beautifully evocative image in describing the rush of love as “Like bitter tangerine” / Like sirens in the streets”. Lines like these are far more successful than his more generic platitudes, such as when he sings “what a time to be alive” in “What A Heavenly Way to Die”, or “let me be everything you need” in the ballad “Postcard”. “Lucky Strike” has the best of both; for every time he sings something basic like, “tell me all the ways to love you” there’s something strange and lovely like telling his lover he wants to skip stones on his skin.

These are all of the unheard tracks, as the others have all been out for a while; Sivan has been releasing this album, as he said on his Instagram Story, “for ten years”. Half of the album being out long before its release makes it harder to see it as a whole, but those tracks turned out to be wholly representative. “My My My!” is still a softly-banging bop. “The Good Side” remains a beautifully autumnal Elliott Smith-lite guitar elegy to an uneven breakup, while “Animal” sounds like it was genetically engineered to be an album closer. “Dance to This” comes to life snuggled between warm mid-tempo tracks but still doesn’t completely land, and the title track snaps like the omnipresent 80s snare drum but the chorus floats by without much impact. 

“The production is slick and the songs are well-crafted, but they never do anything unexpected, which slightly cheapens the already base-level exploration of gay culture throughout Bloom.”

The album sounds gorgeous and Sivan’s mumble-croon is still enticing. It sounds like modern pop through a boutique filter, and if it feels familiar it’s because it’s a distillation of everything Lorde and Frank Ocean have already excelled at. Slick, airless beats? Check. Bubbling synths that just about avoid 80s pastiche? Check. A reprise of “Seventeen” on the Urban Outfitters version, much like “Liability (Reprise)” from last year’s Melodrama? Check. Lyrics which attempt to capture the thrill of youth and the subversion of the young gay experience? Check. That one part halfway through Animal that couldn’t sound more like Frank Ocean if it came from a Frank Ocean tribute act on a competition judged by Frank Ocean? Mhmm. The production is slick and the songs are well-crafted, but they never do anything unexpected, which slightly cheapens the already base-level exploration of gay culture throughout Bloom. “Seventeen” would be only solid but for the context while Bloom’s main talking point is that it’s supposedly about bottoming.

This slightly exposes the undercurrent at play here, that Sivan is another cisgender white gay man making music that is just anonymous enough to be permitted to exist in a mainstream space. Like Sam Smith and his brand of plastic soul, or Years & Years and their chart-centric chameleon sound, it tiptoes around real depth in order to provide the general public with tasty, manageable chunks of “LGBTQ+ 101” that makes them feel progressive while barely scraping the surface. 

“It sounds like modern pop through a boutique filter, and if it feels familiar it’s because it’s a distillation of everything Lorde and Frank Ocean have already excelled at”

Even Hayley Kiyoko, hailed as “lesbian Jesus”, makes music that, without the fervent LGBTQ+ interest, would spill from Starbucks speakers unbothered. It’s not these artists’ fault that the mainstream is taking such baby steps, but it means that to the growing circle of the community that raves to SOPHIE, Mykki Blanco and Rina Sawayama, artists like Sivan will never be progressive enough to truly represent them, barely-veiled references to bottoming aside.

Despite this, it’s still hugely gratifying and exciting to see an openly gay solo act reach for the stars and get most of the way there. This is the caveat with LGBTQ+ criticisms on pop music; we can be simultaneously extremely critical and shameless, as we take what we can get and celebrate anything that makes us feel good, because to live joyfully as an LGBTQ+ person in 2018 is radical in its own small way.

Sivan knows this and seems to be aware of his place, especially after seeing how easily Dua Lipa slid from supporting him on tour to conquering the world, while possessing all the personality of a Forever 21 jacket must have stung. He has responded by having the most fun of his life on a taut album of atmospheric sex jams and exultant bops. Really, it isn’t the music, slick as it is, that makes this album good. It’s the tangible essence of dancing in the rain, imagining Sivan moving with his fans and community, bleached blonde hair hanging in sopping noodles as he embraces his small corner of the alt-pop world.

In a nutshell: We’ll be at the Bloom Tour.