Piping at the Gates of Knowledge
Momus (aka Nick Currie) has most of the qualities I look for in an innovative artist: he’s possessed of an adventurous spirit, he’s brainy, he’s literary, he’s musically and lyrically unabashed (to put it mildly), and he’s a musical genius. He’s also, like many geniuses, incredibly and perhaps compulsively prolific. Recently, though, Momus’s already quirky synth pop has taken a turn for the stranger: 2003’s Oskar Tennis Champion found the Scottish one-man band exploring what he calls “chanson concrete”, a style that blends his predilection for the likes of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg with a newfound taste for musique concrète (roughly, the use of studio techniques to radically alter the character of recorded music). This type of electronica could never be confused with the slick, dynamic stuff on which you’d glide through a day at the office or with which you’d demo your hi-fi rig (Goldfrapp, Craig Armstrong, Air, et al.).
Lovers of Momus’s more traditional music might be disappointed to learn that Otto Spooky, his 18th strictly solo release in about as many years, is a few steps further from the mainstream than Oskar Tennis Champion. As one of those listeners, I can also say that this album is definitely not without its rewards. It’s a long and experimental work that veers from brutally processed ballads and Okinawan-flavored Japanese folk music to twisted video-game soundtracks and hypnotic chant-like meditations, all the way to Algerian raï, a song in the Ethiopian language Orominya about divining for water, and even a piece done in “neue horspiel”, the German post-war tradition of art radio. This list is by no means exhaustive. Momus has lived and worked in many countries, most recently London, Japan, the United States, France, and Germany, where he recorded this album.
Momus is both a romantic and something of a formalist, and you can hear these sides of him warring, or at least performing a savage tango, throughout this record. The album is designed to pull listeners out of context, away from anything remotely familiar, the better to be accepted on its own terms for exactly what it is, nothing more and nothing less. This re-contextualizing can take some getting used to, especially amid so many odd noises and awkward edits and song transitions, many of which were supplied not by Momus but by a Michigan-based “reproducer” named John Talaga, who “tweaked, mangled, glitched up and remixed” parts of Momus’s last album, as well.
While Momus’s experimental side wants to dominate, it doesn’t preclude actual melodies from slipping through here and there, most prominently in “Corkscrew King” and “Robin Hood”. Repeat listens—and I’m talking substantial repeat listens, depending on your musical orientation—stand to reveal a soul behind the lyrics, occasional foot-tapping rhythms (“Life in the Fields”, “Belvedere”), and even downright catchy hooks (“Your Fat Friend”).
Certainly, his love of words and wordplay remains intact, as does his preoccupation with sexuality, though Otto Spooky is pretty tame (by Momus standards) in that regard. It’s perhaps the very wordiness of his songs that sets him so apart from many other avant-garde composers and musicians—he couldn’t be further from minimalism and obliqueness, at least where his lyrics are concerned. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in “Cockle Pickers”, the horspiel mentioned earlier. It’s the tragic story of an illegal Chinese immigrant in London told through six-and-a-half minutes of speech and music. It’s a bit like a show tune, yet it’s compact, self-contained, and it benefits from the absence of visuals. There’s a reporter-like narrator who shares the telling of the tale with the protagonist himself (Momus in both roles), but a haunting musical refrain foreshadows and caps the young man’s demise alongside 18 other cockle-shell pickers, all racing a tide they can’t see: “The wind is strong, the tide is high / In darkness no-one can see the sky”, which becomes, when sung again at the end, “In darkness no-one can see the sea.”
The earnest humanitarian bent of this piece is somewhat the exception rather than the norm here, however. Momus, who named himself after the Greek god of ridicule and blame, revels in expositions of absurdities, hypocrisies, and ironies. “Belvedere”, for instance, is a spare little ditty reminiscent of a TV theme that rakes children’s music and kids TV over the coals for their bland and unrealistic portrayals: “What fun it is to do the things he shows you how to do! / Report the conversations of your parents to the Guard / Sleep naked with a member of the Inner High Elite / Touch other children’s genitals for pleasure / For Belvedere and children it’s ‘Never say never’!”
“Jesus in Furs” takes Mel Gibson directly to task for his Passion of the Christ film, musing “God is in pain / This isn’t very entertaining / Mel please explain / Your vision for the world”—a phrase to which Momus applies a delicious twist after noting that we’re all, in fact, in pain: “God please explain / Your vision for the world.”
“Klaxon”, sung in French to an Arabic bayati scale, is about “a Tripoli taxi driver who loves slapping his wife—and being slapped back”; “In the Fields” gives us sex, death, and The Wicker Man; and “Corkscrew King” delights in a case of courtly impotence with a nod to Yeats and his belief in a direct connection between potency and creativity.
In the final analysis, these must be considered folk songs, though I honestly can’t say they wouldn’t be better or couldn’t be sung and arranged in a more accessible, more openly musical forum. I’m left wondering: Does my ability to hear, in some respect, through the production and to “the actual songs” mean his experiment in musique concrète is a failure? Maybe the heart of Momus’s inner romantic simply beats too strong. For this, let us be thankful. And for all of the above, let us keep an ear to the ground for future efforts from this fascinating if sometimes frustrating pusher of buttons—and boundaries.
// Notes from the Road
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