And Then There Were Two ...
The word menomena is purportedly, if you believe Wikipedia’s entry on this Portland-based band, Greek for “what remains”. If true, this would be an apt summation of Menomena in 2012, as the band has gone from being a trio to a duo since the release of 2010’s Mines. Founding member Brent Knopf left the band in early 2011 to focus more squarely on his other project, Ramona Falls, leaving just Justin Harris and Danny Seim to carry on the Menomena flag for their fifth release, Moms, which sees the duo splitting the songwriting duties equally between them – five songs were written by Harris and five by Seim. In light of a mate leaving, it actually turns out that Moms is a very personal album on a number of fronts, one that might leave listeners wanting to do some kind of psychoanalysis on the state of mind of its creators. This is something that is even seemingly addressed by the band itself on the song “Baton” with lyrics such as “Hail Mary, is this golden ticket all that you’ve left me? / For the therapists to pawn off and retire on the proceeds?” So what’s up with the Menomena guys?
Well, on top of reportedly struggling to get along with Knopf as bandmates, both Seim and Knopf had gotten divorces, and the album bears this out. In fact, the very first lyrics in the very first song, “Plumage”, once you get past the giddy and compelling echoy hand claps that open the piece, go “Animal / I’m nothing more than an animal / In search of another animal / To tame and claim as my own,” which would be a window into its creator’s loneliness. And then the song “Skintercourse” takes things a step further, though it is a bit of paradigm shift in thinking, by telling us “I fell in love with the feeling of being in love / I should have known it wouldn’t last” and “I can’t identify the source of my overarching need to pry under your skin / I guess it started all the way back when you and I used to pretend we were just friends.” So Moms is clearly an album about longing for the other, in the wake of the other’s leaving. (And that’s assuming the significant other hasn’t left: “Pique” offers that “And now I’m getting used to getting used by you / So much so that I’m starting to feel right at home / On the whipping post”.) But you can stretch the divorce thematic beyond that, and make it more universal: Moms is an album about family and its failings. This has been bared out by the fact that a lot of articles that preceded this record’s release that Seim has come to the realization that he has spent more time alive post-the death of his mother in 1994 than before, and Harris’s dad was a Vietnam vet who essentially wound up abandoning the family, leaving his mother to raise him alone.
To that end, listeners will be confronted with a knotty narrative of family-related lyrics such as “You made me with no clue as how to raise me / To be a stand up man / You brought me into the shit show / Without a penny or a plan” (“Pique”) and “Heavy are the branches hanging from my fucked up family tree / And heavy was my father, the stoic man of pride and privacy” (“Heavy Is As Heavy Does”). I know, I know, this is a lot of words to cough up and throw at you, the reader, but Moms is that kind of album that is more a novel than a musical statement, in some respects. It is thick, and intertwined and quite complex, and is perhaps the artiest album, lyrics-wise, to be released so far in the whole of the year 2012. There’s a lot here to take in, but that also means that there’s a lot to come back to. And, to be sure, you can do a lot of reading between the lines and treat Moms as more than just an artistic statement, but one that’s a treatise from its creators on the state of their own well-being, which will give fans who particularly like following their heroes in a stalker-ish manner to make something important and personal in their relation to this long player in their own minds. It is, though, a brutally raw statement, one so cutting that you want to applaud Harris and Seim for their honesty, though it can also be so blunt that it may cause one to wince. Particularly when glory holes are brought up as they are in “Capsule”. (Someone’s been spending some time with porn, have they?)
But here we are, fourth paragraph in, and we haven’t even talked about the twitchy music yet. While there isn’t a real standout track to be found – though I do rather like the “tiny music box feel blown into a carnival” atmosphere of “Don’t Mess With Latexas”, despite the fact that one online review of this LP has described it as being the album’s sole throwaway (sacrilege!) – there is also a consistency to this album, and its own that isn’t afraid to twist and turn and run down widely divergent pathways within its own songs. Heck, the song “Capsule” is very reminiscent of the Folk Implosion’s “Brand of Skin”, so much so that it sounds like Lou Barlow is singing along. “Heavy Is As Heavy Does” is a piano-based ballad that sounds a little like it could have come out of the ‘70s Pink Floyd songbook. And while the record’s instrumentation is clearly rock-based, the duo isn’t afraid to open a song like “Pique” with a single, sustained squeezebox chord. All in all, while you probably won’t catch yourself walking down the street whistling any of these songs, it doesn’t really matter. There’s enough here to untie musically, and that’s when you’re not trying to make some kind of unity behind the rest of the album’s lyrical sentiment.
In short, Moms is an album that you will probably end up liking, and liking a lot, though it is also conversely an album that is hard to enjoy with its heart-on-its-sleeve sentiment and the realization that its creators might not be the most affable guys on the planet. (You do get a sense from listening to this highly emotionally charged record why at least one of the participants had his marriage dissolve.) Still, Moms continues the streak of Menomena albums that are good to great – have these guys turned in a bad album, even five records in? There’s a lot to swallow in one dose, but the masterminds behind Menomena have not bitten off more than they can chew by drawing a line between the failures and personal tragedies of their own childhoods with the impact that may have had in their own male-female relations (assuming, too, that some of these songs aren’t coded and actually are directed at former bandmate Knopf). You’ll listen to Moms and realize that Harry Nilsson may have gotten it wrong. One is not the loneliest number. Moms easily proves that it is two.