Cody Critcheloe has his back to the fading July sun after a day of unrelenting heat in Brooklyn. He’s donning his final look of the day, an understated suit and a jagged wig he delicately explores with his hand. It’s been a while since he’s found himself at the center of attention, following a seven-year hiatus from his music career as SSION, an artist with a penchant for queercore dance anthems that would tickle both David Lynch and Iggy Pop. He’s reemerged totally centered, ready again to touch his audience the way his idols once touched him.
“It’s funny because I’m doing everything I wanted to be doing when I was a kid, it just doesn’t look or always feel like I thought it would,” Critcheloe says. “It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of pain that comes with that.”
In an attempt to characterize his time away, Critcheloe recalls the romantic highs, the heartbreaking lows, and, of course, the parties. But his seven years away were nothing if not productive. He found himself behind both the camera and the canvas, directing music videos for the likes of Sky Ferreira and Perfume Genius and painting abstractions that would later complement his new record, O.
“I didn’t stop making music during that time period, I just wasn’t truly happy,” he says of the departure. “Ultimately, it made me really value the freedom I have to do whatever I want and be a true freak, [to] express myself any way I wanted to.”
“I think that’s where SSION comes from, is that exclusion, of being shunned. And that’s the true spirit of it. It’s taking that feeling of being excluded and rewriting it to work for yourself.” — Cody Critcheloe
With unshaken principles, Critcheloe now boasts a bit more perspective. He cites a visit to last year’s David Hockney exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as inspiring a unique insight into the trajectory of his own artistic journey.
“I had this moment when I saw his later work that isn’t as strong,” he says. “It’s like, he’s still doing it and he’s still making stuff. And it’s just a matter of time, in a way, before he stumbles upon something else that will get people revved up again. I think that’s sort of the experience I had as a creator, kind of having to ride those peaks and valleys.”
Critcheloe reveals a distance between himself and his past works—a distance he invites to feed an insatiable appetite. “It’s not that I don’t like it. I’m just not interested in it. It’s like looking in a yearbook,” he admits. “You make something and hopefully you really love it, and you’re excited for people to hear it, and you’re excited to build a world around it, but you better hope that you’re gonna be tired of it at some point.”
Not only is the return of SSION heralded in technicolor splendor, but Critcheloe’s comeback is ripe with the scent of rejuvenation and the promise of renewal. With titles like “Big as I Can Dream” and “At Least the Sky is Blue,” the new tracks reflect SSION’s evolution with a delectable honesty that only real wisdom can yield. O demonstrates the currency of clarity and the rejection of labels.
“Someone cool is just cool,” Critcheloe argues. “Like, does it really matter what they listen to or what their job is? It basically comes down to their overall point of view.”
Growing up as an only child in Kentucky, often alone with his thoughts, Critcheloe developed an affinity for classic rock and the grandeur of music videos from the 1980s and ’90s. The iconography of SSION is reminiscent of the medium’s shimmering golden age, marrying sexualized performance art with the glossy aesthetics of the late 20th century. The lead music video from O, the aptly titled “Comeback,” captures Critcheloe in a series of dreamlike vignettes—including a one-man food fight where he thrashes about a kitchen while done up as a cow with utters adorning his face. He describes the new album as highly referential, alluding to the satisfied vibes of classic rock without sacrificing his subversive wit in the process.
If something’s too beautiful or if there’s a video that’s too straightforward, my instinct is always to go, “Well, how can we fuck it up?”
After more than a decade of making a scene in the periphery of the mainstream, SSION has carved out a place for himself at the forefront with eclectic flair. “I think that’s where SSION comes from, is that exclusion, of being shunned,” he says. “And that’s the true spirit of it. It’s taking that feeling of being excluded and rewriting it to work for yourself.”
Critcheloe also observes far greater balance in the musical plane upon his return, as well as a firmer sense of camaraderie among musicians. “Now, everyone loves Rihanna,” he notes. “There’s not like a battle of underground musicians versus mainstream musicians. Even the coolest, weirdest people—their dream is to write a song for Rihanna.”
SSION’s reemergence coincides with the music industry’s now-entrenched poptimism, and Critcheloe radically reinterprets musical convention into an ecstatic crescendo that draws upon elements borrowed from influences that include Iggy Pop, Atari Teenage Riot, and Kylie Minogue. But SSION exists to upend pop’s norms. Critcheloe explains, “If something’s too beautiful or if there’s a video that’s too straightforward, my instinct is always to go, ‘Well, how can we fuck it up?'”
O reflects Critcheloe’s growth as a multimedia raconteur. It serves a taste of his ambitions beyond music as well—he envisions a later career in film. “I’m also using this set of videos as a way of really trying to learn storytelling in a cinematic way,” Critcheloe says. “I want to do John Cassavetes or Bob Fosse or Pedro Almodóvar.”
A queercore amalgamation of his heroes, Critcheloe is a proven wizard in his art, crafting concise narratives ensconced in refreshing surrealism. O is at the center of Critcheloe’s focus for now, with future tours and videos still to come. And like the low sun at his back, his gaze is forever fixed on the horizon.
“I’m forever thinking about something else I want to do or how I can make it better or how I can reach more people,” he says. “I think that restlessness will always be there. And I hope so, because I don’t want to get too comfortable.”