Drenched in decadence and atmospheric eloquence, The Opiates debut album Hollywood Under The Knife marks the legendary singer Billie Ray Martin's first album since her soul-enriching 2001 solo set Eighteen Carat Garbage. Her partner in crime and co-producer is Robert Solheim who filters the singer's unmistakably soulful voice (in turns plaintive, expressive, rueful and sometimes plain paranoid) through electronic veils, dramatic guises and a disturbing clatter of upscale arrangements.
The pulsating, sole uptempo Reality TV originally took shape as a demo submitted for consideration to go on Britney's Blackout album. Lyrically, Billie bites a little too close to to the bone to the Britney breakdown for this to have been realistically included on a Spears album. And thank god. It ranks among Martin's highest pop peaks. So much so I can only imagine holding it back for a future Billie solo album proved too hard to not share. Soldhiem perfectly spikes Billie's exquisitely prescription-pumped ballad-as-pop-song with electronic tinkles like a beard made from fragments of ice, tailoring it with the synth-pop equivalent of luxuriously gaudy sequins.
It is a song that fits in with Billie's winning batch of electro-disco or otherwise just plain outstanding singles from 2003-5: the manic head-rush and disorientating vanishing-point disco of No Brakes On My Rollerskates (experience your feet feel as if they've left the ground), the panting prostitute anthem Twisted Lover ("I'm all tied up, not strings attached"), the gelid-eyed gutter diva moment of Bright Lights Fading (where she wants to "spend my royalties on poor boys"), the murky Elvis tribute Dead Again, the seething orgasm of all available orifices Undisco Me and the smoldering and morbidly chic Je Regrette Everything (one can only hope the singer scoops these incredible songs together for an eventual solo album). Reality TV transmits a broody and no less euphoric energy that isn't replicated anywhere else. Tinkling like watery salts and electronic silver metals, Billie almost sings sweetly about the morose subject matter of fame's extreme and irresistible torment.
The album opens like an oozing mist with the somber-probably-not-sober Rainy Days and Saturdays. Billie's plaintive, solitary and taut emotional expressionism is complimented with a sparse ambiance that captures the poignancy of private inspection, long-lasting ennui and rueful loneliness. The beauty builds largely due to the singer's expert, or resigned, restraint.
The seductively strange Silent Comes The Night is arguably the album's peak of alienation, with the creepy whispers about watching too much TV generating an odd, unhinged exotica. Clattery. Floorboard-creaking. Viciously reclusive. Perfectly shaded. This is what being the old lady expertly looking out her window behind the vintage 80s Venetian blinds at night time might sound like. Like Reality TV, it was also initially scheduled for her own solo album and not surprisingly is another stand out.
Atmosphere-swept Dinah & The Beautiful Blue caught me completely off guard. Like a cool night-time breeze hitting you at just the right moment with just the right view, I had to pause and silence everything both during and after it just to appreciate what I was had just gone through. This album is very stylistic, but here the tension has been released. Startlingly sparse and yet emotionally huge. Sadness as a privilege. It must take a huge heart to feel this sad. The remains of the album are percolating discoid-driven affairs or more gradual, guarded items where Billie offers yet more expensive secrets, drama-queen paranoia and tranquil tenderness.
The Opiates are largely geared towards an aesthetic of self-scrutiny through a careful lens of perfection-craving, a diet of the finest Depeche Mode album tracks and both a glinting and detached sardonic commentary on Hollywood as a subtle concept to hinge these elegantly mysterious songs onto. The album may be too dimly-lit for its own good for some, but this is not a Billie solo album and in the understanding of the duo's ambiguous agenda is a sculpted masterpiece aiming to be appreciated in the most perverse ways possible. As Siouxsie Sioux once sang, "transfixed by the inner sound". Buy this album without delay.