A few scattered paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and sprinkle a weak wan light over the patrons of the London avant-garde music venue, Dalston’s own CAFÉ OTO. A man stands fastened to his place behind a semicircle of seats, twisted sideways like a half-uprooted tree. He noshes lovingly on a piece of cake and seems in no hurry to find a seat or finish his plate. Four women huddle around him and engage him in conversation. They seem transfixed, but, then again, his figure is transfixing. He is gaunt and tall and, in his rumpled cardigan, and laxly concealed shirt, he looks like a scarecrow only partly-stuffed. A puffy portion of a wig peaks out from under his oversized newsboy hat, half-hiding his left eye. The right one is entirely concealed by a patch. The girls giggle, goad him, press him on, presumably about his work, his music, books, his art, but the content of their speech is lost in the chatter that surrounds this island of the elect. He laughs, or at least mimes laughter; the low, mellifluous hum he speaks in is barely audible and must test the patience of even this closely clustered coterie of enthusiasts. Someone signals to MOMUS that it’s time. He takes a final bite of cake and places his plate on a bin, then walks through a breach in the middle of the assembled seats, makes it to the stage and leaps onto it like a faun. The show commences.
Momus, the author of such “analogue baroque” albums as The Little Red Songbook and Stars Forever has, for most of his career, preferred deliberately chintzy synthetic sounds, mannered (if often affectedly understated) vocals, and wordplay to the tired tropes of “authenticity” and emotional earnestness. He is, after all, an artist who claims to have revivified his flagging faith in pop after an extended spell (aren’t they all?) in the warped and winding channels of YouTube.
He stood at the confluence where musical genres meet in arbitrary and uncannily intuitive conjunctures dictated by the capricious clicking of the media consumer and saw that it was good. Thus, he wrought 2010’s Hypnoprism, simultaneously a “traditional” album and another announcement of the long-player’s, of the hard copy’s obsolescence. Momus had refreshed himself by dunking his head in YouTube’s delta of data and Hypnoprism became a whirlpool within that delta, where fragments of aural sediment and pixelated silt gather for Momus to merge them into new objets d’art, which he calls “video-songs”.
Though he’s released two albums since Hypnoprism, that work’s bricolage aesthetic suffuses the Momus live experience. While the trickster sings and mimes to the pre-recorded backing tracks issuing from his iPod, reconstituted footage probably drawn from and now safely stored in YouTube’s Alexandrian archive projects onto a screen behind him, helping to dramatize the songs or elaborate inside jokes dependent on an intimate connection with both highbrow and pop arcana, the sort of indiscriminate appropriation to all cultural debris that YouTube facilitates, Momus embodies, and his fans are expected to practice. And the audience at OTO seemed to get the joke. Two particularly potent bits of mischief were Momus’ performances of David Bowie’s “The Stars Are Out Tonight” and “Where Are We Now?”, or rather of the versions he penned and released before the Dame had deployed his own. In my opinion, Momus’ exercises in anticipatory homage and premature parody handily out-Bowie Bowie’s own attempt to out-Bowie himself.
Momus may be the musician who most consistently makes me laugh and his wordplay and his logician’s ability to follow a funny premise to its often troubling culmination are as admirable as any comic’s. Yet, the rarer moments of purposeful pathos which Momus disperses and deploys between blowjob jokes and worldly meditations, are often surprisingly poignant. Momus’ performance of “Beowulf (I Am Deformed)” from 2003’s Oskar Tennis Champion, for example, stirred me in unexpected ways. It is a lament for freaks, as resigned and realistic as Pulp’s “Mis-Shapes” is triumphalist fantasy; it smuggles through the protagonist’s self-deprecation a sad tale about a misfit’s doomed search for recognition. Momus commits to this character, a despairing loser, as fully as he does to the loquacious lotharios, the Biblical (anti-)heroes, the bedsit-bound bibliophiles, the Maoist intellectuals, the homosexuals of convenience, and the thin white dukes which populate the rest of his discography, his combination Bibliotek of Babel/Babylonian brothel.
When Hegel said, speaking of philosophy, that it was “its own time raised to the level of thought,” he might as well have been speaking of Momus, if he had substituted that artist’s moniker for philosophy and pop for thought. It is Momus’ catholicity, his enthusiasm for the overabundance of sensorial stimuli mediated and immediate, for life in its carnal and counterfeit modes, for its sentimental and synthetic streaks, which makes him the perfect pop star for the age of the Black Mirror. Our cursors dangle between profound and puerile links, which are made twins conjoined at the tab by their inclusion in the great hypertext family. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, obsessive over-sharers toil and commit themselves equally to the communication of blatant banality or cathartic confession and end up merging indistinguishably with each other and the rest of the foam emanating from the newsfeed’s endless cascade.
Momus becomes our energetic “unreliable tour guide” through this, our paradoxically disorienting and overfamiliar landscape, littered with normalized perversions and domesticated aberrancy. His charisma, the charisma I saw at work when a young woman in Sailor Moon livery waltzed with the unabashed Japanophile on stage to “I Want You But I Don’t Need You”, reanimates what excessive exposure can fool us into thinking is actually ordinary, actually mundane. When I listen to Momus or see him gambol, careen, pirouette and boogie to his own sonic reflections, his own musings compressed to MP3s, I am reminded that we should be laughing heartily, energetically and frequently not despite the grotesqueness of our overstuffed era, nor at it, but because of it and in communion with all its silliness and the absurd antinomies it brews and serves.
Momus will be performing this June in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Summerhall Place. Details here.