Queer punk duo, PWR BTTM, challenges gender binary on album

With their sophomore album, Pageant, Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce of PWR BTTM explore the power and vulnerability of queerness through their signature brand of angsty garage punk. I say “angsty” in the most positive sense; as Hopkins sings in the slow-jam “LOL,” “When you are queer you are always nineteen.” The album opens with “Silly,” a romantic, anxiety-filled anthem featuring a Thunderstruck-esque hammer-on riff by shredder-in-residence Hopkins. It is the kind of song you’d play with the wind in your face and a rainbow flag unfurling behind you.

On the heels of the fiery opener is “Answer My Text,” an addictive, pop-infused venting session on the frustrations of Tinder-era dating. At this point, the album moves into slower territory, following the blueprint of “Nu1” and “C u Around” from their last album. “LOL” balances soft verse with hard-hitting hook, offering a heartfelt meditation on shame and being made to feel like a fool as a queer person. “Now Now” stands out as one of the most playful tracks, bouncing joyously between Bruce and Hopkins comically berating themselves for their lack of self-care. “Sissy” delves directly into Bruce’s transfemininity – a topic that was dealt with only in passing on their last record. The slur is beautifully reclaimed here. Bruce deflects transphobic street harassment with the sharp tongue I only wish I had in the face of adversity. The song closes out with a spoken-word verse delivered in valley girl-esque monotone: “I forgot how to shut up, so I shouted back into the window of a passing car.” It is followed by the title track – an acoustic ballad featuring soft, strained vocals by Hopkins. It is the closest they come to a Neutral Milk Hotel impression, and it is  one of their most nuanced performances.

“New Trick” puts music to the tiresome and often exhausting labor of teaching cis people about transness. While the result feels a touch on the didactic side, that is probably unavoidable. “Kids’ Table” continues the thread established by “Sissy” and “New Trick,” with a level of autobiographical specificity that feels new for Bruce. The two microverses describe a facial hair removal appointment followed by an encounter with God. It is frustratingly short, clocking in at 2:20, but still leaves a strong impression.

The chorus lyric, “I’m starting to move more like a fish in the sea than a train on the tracks,” gives us a lovely triple entendre. Superficially, Bruce is describing a newfound freedom and self-direction. This is compounded by the colloquial use of “fish” to refer to femininity (in drag culture) and the amusing coincidence that Bruce is a Pisces. “Big Beautiful Day” is the hardest-hitting anthem on the album, condensing a lifetime of queer angst into three minutes of unhinged self-celebration. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from PWR BTTM, complete with Hopkins’ signature hammer-ons. The album closes on its most introspective note with “Styrofoam.” This feels like Bruce’s most genuine moment, where her wit has been stripped away to reveal raw vulnerability.

Pageant is not without its faults, though. Most glaring is the uniformity in song length; all are under three minutes, and most are almost exactly 2 and a half. In terms of composition, Bruce and Hopkins remain disappointingly unadventurous on their sophomore record. The track list also feels bloated, with songs like “Won’t,” “Oh Boy” and “Wash” struggling to stand out. PWR BTTM has been excellent since the first guitar chord of Ugly Cherries, so it is no surprise that Pageant is also an excellent record. While the band’s lyrical performance has grown immensely, Hopkins and Bruce have remained formally cautious, generally following the blueprint set forth by their new album release.

PWR BTTM’s second album, ‘Pageant,’ is a nod to the band’s love of gender performance and drag. Photo courtesy of upsetmagazine.com