[17 March 2011]
Here’s the short version: punk-rock bass god Mike Watt has returned. His new album, Hyphenated-Man, features 30 songs, only two of which are longer than two minutes. He recorded it with his power trio, the Missingmen, so it sounds more like the Minutemen than anything he’s done since 1985. Watt has drawn inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th-century triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Each song represents, and is named after, one of the fantastic allegorical critters scurrying around the painting. If this doesn’t already sound cool, you might as well stop reading.
Still here? Great. As it was with the Minutemen, it’s incredible the range of styles and emotions Watt can convey with the most stringent constraints on his music. Repetition is kept to the bare minimum, so that you’re only beginning to realize that you’ve heard this section before when the song veers off into new territory. As such, we can cycle through a whole verse-chorus-verse-chorus-coda structure in a minute and a half. Tonally, Watt keeps it similarly efficient—the drumming is kinetic, funky, and textural, the guitar is spare and scratchy, and Watt’s bass playing is melodic and ferocious. With these basic elements, however, Watt and the Missingmen are able to conjure up styles and moods as diverse as the playful, loping “Mouse-Headed-Man”; the tense and angry “Man-Shitting-Man”; the soaring, triumphant riffs of “Hammering-Castle-Bird-Man”; the skittish, pointillistic “Head-and-Feet-Only-Man”; or the oddly anthemic “Own-Horn-Blowing-Man”.
In a fascinating piece in the New York Times recently, Watt discussed his creative process for this record. An individual figure in Bosch’s painting would imply a particular emotion or personality trait, which Watt would then apply to himself, along with references to other phenomena associated with that emotion. A picture of a man blowing on a trumpet with a flute lodged in his rear, for example, reminded Watt of throwing a tantrum, which in turn evoked the infamous Buddy Rich tapes (recordings of the great jazz drummer and bandleader screaming at his band after shows for perceived shortcomings, both personal and professional—a big hit on the bootleg circuit, apparently). The result is the song “Blowing-It-Out-Both-Ends-Man”, a frantic distillation of a fit of rage.
When Watt pares things down as brutally as he does, though, a lot of the process becomes invisible. In “Blowing-It-Out-Both-Ends-Man”, the only reference to the Buddy Rich tapes that makes it through Watt’s artistic filter is the surreal closing rejoinder, “…and no beards!” Without annotated guides to each song, it is difficult for the uninitiated listener to figure out what the hell is going on. I’ve spent as much time poring over Watt’s music as anyone, and I couldn’t tell you what personal epiphany or outside references lie in “Mouse-Headed-Man”, the complete lyrics of which are as follows:
Like a mouse Like a mouse Like a mouse And the mouse sings Like a mouse Like a mouse Like a mouse
In short, this record will, by its very nature, keep most of its audience at arm’s length.
Like other epic albums comprised of lots of short songs, Hyphenated-Man can be pretty daunting. No matter how much invention goes into the composition and sequencing, it takes several listens for the last third of the record to sink in (who here can name their favorite song off side four of Double Nickels on the Dime?). All of this makes it tricky to assign a numerical grade. I love this record, but cannot in good conscience recommend it to everyone. In writing about his own relationship with art, Mike Watt has produced a record as idiosyncratic and personal as anyone’s reaction to a given song or record. It’s impossible not to muster up a great deal of admiration for such an accomplishment, even if the record itself isn’t the easiest thing to love. It’s a complex, challenging album that does not meet its listeners halfway; if you’re up for spending some time in Watt’s world, though, there’s really nothing else like it.