The Great Residents Debate Continues
“You know who I really think is bad for rock and roll,” Sam would say (or words to that effect), “bands like the Residents. There’s no heart in what they do.”
Being a moderate fan at the time, I knew there was something great about the Residents, but I also completely understood his point. Few people buy a Residents album because they heard a Residents song that immediately gripped them. People typically begin listening to the Residents because they are enthralled with the idea of the Residents. The idea of four individuals (perhaps) anonymously making strange concept albums about moles and Eskimos, while occasionally embarking on elaborate live shows while donning eyeball masks and top hats, is an absolutely fascinating one for a certain type of music fan. Their music can only rarely match the enduring Myth of the Residents. Their catalogue has moments of greatness, where their relentless anti-pop tone-poems and surreal stories hit moments of insane beauty that owe little to rock music in general. Just as often, however, the Residents can be weighed down by various gimmicks and experiments, and their music can become wearingly formless: a series of willfully strange narratives accompanied by static compositions.
Animal Lover, the latest album from the Residents, claims to be another concept album, about the connections and differences between human beings and their fellow animals. In fact, the album claims that the songs are “based entirely on animal noise mating patterns generated by cicadas and frogs”. While the Residents surely are biology buffs, their enormous back catalogue contains a soundtrack to a nature documentary, it is difficult to decide how much this claim, or even the stated theme of the album, has to do with the actual content of the album. The cynic in me wants to suggest that they made the “mating patterns” claim to justify a subtle electronica influence creeping into their synthesizer-driven sound.
There are at least traces of this theme in the work. “On the Way (to Oklahoma)” is sung by a man who becomes a cat and “finally (becomes) sane”. The narrator, the unmistakable laconic voice of the prime Residents vocalist (whoever he is), sings about the sensible pleasures of meat and licking himself, which contrast with the insane needs of the consumers on “Two Lips”, a song about the tulip craze in seventeenth century Holland. Warped by commercial pressures, the crazed chorus of buyers has pledged to sell their homes to buy tulips. This sounds like a farcical Residents premise except it comes straight from the record books, and the twisted troll voice that rasps about his need for tulips (and his willingness to sell his wife and sons) no longer sounds like over-the-top satire. The spooky “What Have My Chickens Done Now”, an oblique play with three different narrative voices: an elderly woman, an eerie childlike voice, and a spooky chorus, pits an elderly woman against her seemingly possessed livestock. The song however, takes no sides about whether the woman or the chorus of sentient chickens is morally in the right (perhaps neither are).
Still, despite their protests about the insanity of man, there is a strange humanitarian urge on Animal Lover that serves as the counter-argument to the Residents’ supposed “lack of heart”. The Residents, at their best, do not produce sterile experimental pieces designed to repel or inspire polite appreciation. From the beginning, their music has created an unsettling atmosphere that plays out a range of darker emotions: fear, dread, even pity and sadness. The strangely tuned instruments and distorted vocals are not mere parlor tricks, they are used to express the unsettling truth behind the world’s supposed order and normalcy. “Inner Space” and “Dead Men” stand out, amongst the seemingly craziness of the rest of the album, as harrowing portraits of human mortality. The female narrator of “Inner Space” recalls witnessing her father’s increasing isolation and coldness as he faced death, singing in a detached voice that suggests a numbed pain. “Dead Men” follows soon after, as another unearthly chorus speculates on the traits we will have after we die, concluding, starkly, that “dead men are only in the way”. It would be hard to argue that there is no way to listen to these songs, and decide that the Residents came from an emotionless place.
However, Sam may have a point after all. Animal Lovers’ weak points may show the Residents to be all eyeball masks and no cattle. The Residents successfully add a needed energy into their music, maybe because they are actually following the rhythm of frogs bumpin’ uglies, as the “close enough for rock and roll” instrumental “Mr. Bee’s Bumble” and the spooky samba of “The Whispering Boys” prove. Still, much of the album gets reduced into slightly off-kilter new age with occasional horror show effects. In attempting to subvert pop music in general, the Residents often find themselves removing anything remotely interesting from their music. On Animal Lovers, the Residents show, as always, a lot of heart and thought in the lyrics and ideas and even in their theatrical vocal performances, but that effort only sporadically shows up in the music itself.