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"I am feeling sexier than ever," Jake Shears says confidently, calling from a cab in London en route to celebrate close friend Kylie Minogue's birthday. It's an attitude that not only reflects the 31-year-old singer's newly chiseled physique but also infects Night Work, the audacious third album from his band, Scissor Sisters.
It doesn't take much imagination to see Shears in a sexual light. Frequently shirtless and always refreshingly candid, he makes no secret of his past stint as a go-go boy in seedy New York bars prior to forming Scissor Sisters. Nor has he been shy about postsuccess dropping of trou, evidenced in tantalizing photo shoots for numerous magazines, not to mention his penchant for wearing next to nothing while prancing like a panther when taking center stage in concert. Yet Night Work is an erotic revelation. It's a record that wears its pro-sex message on its album sleeve--a close-up of dancer Peter Reed's clenched ass taken by another provocateur, the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Shears proudly takes credit for the cover, fighting against the band's and label's opposition to the vintage photograph. "I'm glad I stuck to my guns," he says. "It makes a statement that's unique."
Songs such as "Any Which Way," "Harder You Get," and "Skin Tight" only reinforce the carnal theme. Clearly influenced by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Giorgio Moroder, and Sylvester, Night Work is a paean to a bygone era--recalling the hedonistic haze of the late 1970s and early '80s as disco morphed into house music and the AIDS crisis took its toll on the nightclub subculture--and the gay musicians associated with the period.
"I want this record to hold a torch up," Shears says. "It's an homage to all those men we lost to AIDS...and all that creativity that was suddenly gone." The dozen new songs from Sisters with Shears's soaring falsetto serve as a siren's call to shed all inhibitions on the dance floor. While the lead single, "Fire With Fire," is an optimistic anthem that celebrates survival, the album's closing track, "Invisible Light," with Sir Ian McKellen's spoken word invitation to the bacchanal, is a serotonin rush of a song. It may be the band's masterpiece. "It's a shout-out to all the people who drop E and stay out all night," Shears says. "The breakdown in the song is made for flashbacks." Besides the obvious appeal to club kids of all ages, Night Work, with its pervasive call to join the party, could be the band's most accessible album yet. And that didn't happen coincidentally.
Like Scissor Sisters' 2004 eponymous debut, the band's 2006 release, Ta-Dah, met with moderate success in the States (though it sold phenomenally well abroad, even hitting number 1 on the U.K. charts and elsewhere in Europe). Upon completing the tour to support Ta-Dah, the band recorded a full album's worth of material, only to scrap it. "There were some great songs," Shears says, "but to me the album was cold. It felt callous and heartless." Needing to clear his head, Shears fled to Berlin and surrendered to the city. "I had an adventure," he says. "It had been eight years since I had gone anywhere by myself and didn't have to answer to anybody." He bought a bicycle and explored the city a little bit, but the man who sang "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" also spent a good deal of time clubbing. "I heard great DJs and went dancing and took drugs. I saw crazy shit. It was exactly what I needed to do," he says. Shears also attended extreme sex parties--as a spectator. "All those things kept me going and gave me fuel. They made me happy to be alive."
Then when the party was over, Shears went back to work. The quartet (Ana Matronic, Babydaddy, and Del Marquis--drummer Paddy Boom departed amicably in 2008) reconvened in London to write new material, informed by Shears's sabbatical. The band enlisted producer Stuart Price to oversee the recording of Night Work.
Shears also spent a lot of time, mentally at least, in San Francisco, creating a musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. "This is a musical musical," Shears says of the production, which is a collaboration with Avenue Q's Tony-winning Jeff Whitty and is set to premiere in San Francisco next spring. "It's a big show and is so complex and intricate. It's a challenge to keep all the characters and story lines going. If anything gets knocked out of place, it can send the whole thing down." Still, he adds, "it's going to be a great show."
What Shears won't surrender to is the decadent allure of life on the road. He's remarkably confident about his committed relationship with his partner of six years, Chris (whose last name he prefers not to reveal). "We're deeply in love," he says. "He's a hell of a lot cooler and smarter than I am. He's not into the showbiz glitz." Yet Chris shares his boyfriend's passion for porn--which is convenient since Chris rarely accompanies his partner on the road.
For now, Shears is focused primarily on promoting the new record and launching the band's international tour. "Being onstage every night for an hour and half is like running a marathon, so I drink very little and don't do drugs when we're on the road because it's all about conserving every bit of energy I've got," he says. "Going into the eye of the storm, it's important for me to be as strong as possible and to feel good."