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Dark Mofo 2019: Costume

By Charles Shafaieh
The Tasmanian electro-orchestral pop artist makes a beguiling debut in Hobart

Costume performs at Dark Mofo 2019. Photograph by Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin, 2019. Image courtesy of Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Few at last week’s concert by the glam and ethereal Costume at Hobart’s Odeon Theatre would have believed that this was his first live gig. With aggressively coiffed hair that added substantial height to his already towering, lithe figure, and makeup that recalled a mix of Darryl Hannah in Blade Runner, Klaus Nomi and Marilyn Manson, the artist performed a consistently haunting, sometimes rollicking and altogether beguiling set as a prelude to the opening of Dark Mofo 2019.

Known elsewhere as the writer Adam Ouston, whose work has been published in The Canary Press and numerous other publications, Costume sings with a silky androgynous timbre that sounds as if it may have just emerged from some watery basin far within the forests inhabited by Pan, the titular character of his debut album. He seems well aware of its allure, too. Having rejected the concept of “the band” as a musical unity at odds with our atomised 21st-century societies, he puts the near-full weight of his performance on his voice. The electro-orchestral pop background tracks, though delicately composed, act more as a vehicle for the sound emerging from his mouth, which evokes Anohni (formerly known as Antony Hegarty) and Morrissey in equal measure – a hierarchy Costume emphasised throughout the hour-long concert every time he nonchalantly moved to the side of the stage himself to turn on each track.

Ouston’s propensity, as a writer, for the short story seems to have carried into his songwriting, as individual songs burst with their own self-contained energy less in service, sonically, of a total album. “Feeling” would be welcomed by dancers at any club, as it envelopes the listener with cascading violins and pulsating electronics, as would the ’80s synth-channelling “Running Boy”. “Horns”, conversely, seems birthed from the darkest recesses of the woods, and the more spoken-word, incantatory “Alone in Berlin” – his strongest piece – channels but in no way mimics Laurie Anderson and Leonard Cohen.

Cohesion instead is found in the lyrics, which focus on liminal states, doubleness and metamorphosis, among other themes. “Help is always / A give and take/ Cutting our skin / For pity’s sake / Don’t stop looking / Both ways / It’s such an eyesore / Trading places”, he sings in “Dream Palace”, which finds its iteration of a sort in “Alone in Berlin” as “Hear a voice I don’t understand / Echo from a vision neither woman nor man / Wandering east, wandering west / Wondering which face fits me the best”. Viewed in this light, a line such as “You only get what you’re looking for when you lay yourself open”, from “Open”, becomes more of a provocation than an assertion, as the album acts as a series of questions regarding identity and whether or not we can ever be fully exposed, to others or ourselves.

Onstage, a group of masked, suited dancers and a roving violinist wearing a black lace bodysuit and an Alexander McQueen-esque headpiece covering her eyes manifest this sense of identity confusion and ambivalence, though perhaps a bit too literally (and maybe too closely resembling a Lady Gaga music video). Of the same spirit but more subtle were Costume’s own, perhaps unconscious, movements. During instrumental interludes, he performed a series of slow, full-body jerking motions, like a figure in a stop-motion animation film or a marionette puppet that doesn’t have full control of his limbs. These spasms perhaps signalled his confusion about what to do with himself onstage – an understandable uncertainty, having never performed as Costume – but regardless, they acted as the bodily expression of Ouston in the process of becoming Costume that evening in front of the crowd, one jerk at a time.

Pan was the first album commissioned by DarkLab, which produces Dark Mofo. It could be said that the release of the album is a moment in Dark Mofo’s transformation from a Tasmanian festival into an international brand, which many might find concerning in terms of the event’s foundational transgressive and iconoclastic ethos. But if a literature-PhD-holding, androgynous diva who sings wearing a shimmering tiger-striped onesie and sells not only hot-pink vinyl but also branded pink ball-gags is what this brand looks like, then we should probably postpone our worries.

Charles Shafaieh

Charles Shafaieh is an arts journalist based in New York City. His writing on music, theatre, literature, film, and visual art has appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times, The Times Literary Supplement and other international publications.

Costume performs at Dark Mofo 2019. Photograph by Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin, 2019. Image courtesy of Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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