Review by: Jonathan Moss
Album assigned by: Franco Micale
Franco loves the lyrics on this album, so I’m going to get them out of the way. They’re really good! I wouldn’t go quite as far as Franco in calling them “epic poetry” but they’re narrated with the humour The Residents are known for- of course for some that might be a sign straight away the album isn’t for them- and it does touch on some interesting philosophical themes. However I am no Alex Alex and thus cannot really go into the lyrics in any greater detail.
Alright, so this is an hour long concept album about a man called Mr. X – the narrator- discovering mystical conjoined twins with healing powers and touring them as a freak show. Then he tries to rape one and has an epiphany, or something. The story seems more like an excuse to visit Mr. X’s life and get some themes across than anything else. Anyway, the music, see the thing about the music is that due to the claustrophobia it seems minimalistic, though I’m not sure how genuine this is. Well, there’s a decent variety of instruments- guitars, synthesizers, horns, pianos, drums. Hell, even the synth, which I’d argue is the most prominent, switches between a low budget new wave sound and a grander, almost progressive rockish one. Still, the album definitely does seem to go for a similar vibe- one that seems to me to be like a seedy alley on an alien planet- and the Les Claypoolesque (only, y’know, this guy came first) spoken vocals give it a unity and repetition.
The album has been described as disturbing and while I wasn’t outright disturbed myself it does have some unsettling moments. But it also has a lot of fun parts! Take the first song (“Main Title From God in Three Persons”), which is dominated by pseudo-operatic female backing vocals that stay throughout the album, though not as prominent, save for some bits. Anyway, these slightly deranged vocals along with the almost show tune like melody serve to make it one of my favourite songs on the album. Then there’s “The Touch”, where they sing “fluttered down” which is very catchy, though in a different mood it could sound annoying.
The vocals could easily be isolated from the music and still be somewhat compelling, though I doubt you’d want to listen more than once. They’ve just got this quality, like they make this weird, new wavey avant-garde record also sound like a continuous talking blues song (a comparison I found original, until I read the Wikipedia page for God in Three Persons. If anyone asks I edited it).
I must admit outside of other Residents albums for some bizarre reason this album reminded me of Philip Glass. Maybe it’s the minimalism- or the pseudo-minimalism- along with the female opera vocals. Now, these vocals don’t sound particularly similar to the ones employed in Glass’s operas but they serve a similar purpose and they definitely reminded me, to the extreme where the comparison was pummelling in my brain in an industrial headache that at one point got so intense I thought it was part of the album (not really). Outside of that this album seems split between artsy, melancholic songs, demented lo-fi children’s songs created by someone who hates children (and songs) and more peculiarly beautiful moments that remind me of their other album Not Available. And there’s some parts that sound like Scott Walker’s weird albums (sorry I couldn’t fit this in more naturally, I’m a hack). I would also compare it to Devo but let’s face it those guys were way better.
The album is remarkably even, filled with poppy melodies, weird noises, artsy synths, catchy brass and eerie vibes (to clarify, not the instrument). Despite this there’s definitely some stand out tracks. One is “Fine Fat Flies”, which contains backing instrumentation that’d work in a noise record. There’s also “Loss of a Loved One”, which features the backing vocals singing “this is the sad paaaaart!” all meta like, backed by creepy- possibly synthesized- whistling and a mournful brass bit, while Mr. X narrates how his wife died (that’s why it’s the sad part!) Not even the detached southern spoken word can stop it from being a genuinely moving song with a peculiar sort of grandeur. The final song- Pain and Pleasure- also works well, sounding suitably climactic (backing vocals: “this is the end!”).
So, overall this is definitely a strong album, and probably one of the more accessible Residents album, to be honest it’s more art rock than avant-garde. Of course, this doesn’t stop me from pausing it when I hear my parents outside.