Wikipedia, that questionable bastion of Internet information, refers to the current phase of The Residents’ career as the “storyteller era”, a moniker that has quite a fair amount of legitimacy to it. The Residents have always been a group of artists far more readily than they have ever been a band, content to travel wherever their whims took them on the artistic spectrum, whether it be into the realm of music, film, graphic art, or performance art. Most recently, those whims have been in the direction of a sort of musical theater, largely spoken word flanked by whatever demented backdrop The Residents feel most appropriate, though occasional bouts of singing do make their way into the mix as well.
The Voice of Midnight is the most fully realized version of this approach that The Residents have yet put together, complete with a few fully-realized characters, further characters only implied by the single-sided conversations we hear, and a score that fits the narrated action to a tee.
Despite the professional sound of the release, however, its execution leaves something to be desired. The Voice of Midnight is based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Der Sandmann”, a horror story nearly 200 years old. In some fairly admirable ways, The Residents stay true to Hoffman’s story. The one-sided conversations alluded to earlier likely stem from Hoffman’s original story’s exposition via letters written by the main characters. The letters describe dialogues that happened between the characters writing those letters and others, but in Hoffman’s original, we only see the letter-writers’ sides of the story. Similarly, when conversations take place over the course of The Voice of Midnight, we only hear the voices of the main characters. Also, despite the apparent modernization of much of Hoffman’s story, The Residents leave key plot points intact, allowing for the carryover of much of the symbolism that defined the original.
Unfortunately, it is in the ways that The Residents have changed the story that it most suffers, for The Residents appear to have shifted and augmented “Der Sandmann” for little more than oddity’s sake, it seems. Because they’re The Residents and have a famous attraction to the imagery of eyeballs, the image of the Sandman himself takes a much larger role in the story. The original tale is one of childhood trauma leading to lifelong madness, with a touch of the surreal thrown in to drive the point home. The Sandman is a symbolic figure in that version, hovering as a symbol of the madness of Nathaniel. The Sandman is a much more sinister and literal presence sprawled all over The Voice of Midnight, with his own lines and motivations; while he may still be playing the part of the demented, twisted side of Nathaniel (actually referred to as “Nate” here), the exposition that this version of him provides dilutes the brilliant subtlety of the original. The eyeball connection is the idea that the Sandman steals the eyeballs of children and feeds them to his beak-billed young, a horrific exaggeration of the old tale that the Sandman sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to help them sleep. The Sandman’s fascination with eyeballs appears repeatedly, the only apparent goal of which seems to be because this is a Residents release, and, well, they can.
The players do quite well in this radio play setting; the ham-fisted nature of the performances does an effective job of evoking a broadcast straight out of the ‘40s or ‘50s, though again, The Residents ruin this mood with music that features heavy distortion, computerized beats, and glitchy touches. If that doesn’t ruin it for you, this might: Corey Rosen’s “Nate” sounds disturbingly like Patrick Dempsey when he gets angry. Once one starts picturing Patrick Dempsey reciting these lines, the whole production suddenly becomes hard to take seriously. Gerri Lawler’s “Claire” does a solid job as the sane side of the relationship, never all that interesting but necessary to counterpoint Nate’s madness. The Sandman, for his part, is played by one of The Residents, and he manages a Jim Thirlwell / Tom Waits sort of madness that can’t decide between chilling or cheesy. Again, when you can’t shake the feeling that The Sandman shouldn’t really be given a voice in the first place, it’s hard to enjoy his presence no matter who might be evoked by the character providing that voice.
This is a Residents release, granted, and if they didn’t walk all over hallowed ground and upset a few people in the process, they undoubtedly would consider their latest work a failure. They’ve never been all that concerned with pleasing anyone or anything other than their own twisted sense of artistic validity, which is part of what draws people to them. Still, the appeal of The Voice of Midnight will be invisible to anyone other than Residents addicts and students of broadcast radio drama. The story here, for all of the horror and madness going around, is not particularly engaging, and the music is at best disconnected and at worst distracting. While their are a few wonderful moments (the “Beautiful Dreamer” intercession in the eleven-minute suite that is “True Love” sticks out), most of The Voice of Midnight is little more than a dank, depressing mess. Even admirers of The Residents would be advised to proceed with caution.