Pere Ubu's 18th album offers their most cohesive and disturbing vision of dystopian America. A carnival of oblique reference points, it's also their best album of the 21st century.
So far, 2014 has been a banner year for pop satire, as its two greatest proponents, Weird Al Yankovic and Pere Ubu's David Thomas, released albums within two months of each other. Such an association may seem odd, but consider: both Weird Al and, to a less obvious but no less significant sense, Thomas have made careers out of deconstructing familiar pop songs.
Weird Al has done so via parody of pop songs of the moment, the big hits of the now, whereas Thomas, throughout his work with Pere Ubu, his solo work, and that with Two Pale Boys, has consistently returned to a collection of classic songs from the rock and pre-rock canon, such as “Surfer Girl”, “96 Tears”, and “Goodnight Irene”, twisting them to serve his unique vision of American popular music history. Thomas is as likely to return to his own previous compositions, reworking them into different arrangements and contexts, playing with how the same words can convey different moods and meanings. Weird Al is a Horatian satirist, his work offering a self-deprecating, easy to digest catalog of our collective foibles, whereas Thomas’ satire is Juvenalian, his humor presenting a darker, discomforting perspective of a dyspeptic culture. Both are masters at what they do, and both are funny.
Pere Ubu has always been funny, if misunderstood. Early fan favorite “Final Solution” contains my vote for the greatest joke in rock and roll history: “Guitar’s gonna sound like a nuclear destruction”, which is followed by four beats of silence where big-balled rock 'n' roll cliché dictates an explosive guitar solo should follow. “Sentimental Journey” famously features the sound of breaking glass throughout the song, but gives way in the fade out to the sound of a broom, sweeping up. Another less appreciated characteristic is that Thomas is a Romantic at heart, capable of such evocative lines as “There’s a place in my heart the years don’t go / The days pass it by and you never grow old / Like a house on a hill I remember you still” from “Oh Catherine”. Love, in David Thomas’ world, is always possible, even among the ashes of that world.
Which brings us to Pere Ubu’s 18th album, Carnival of Souls. Another element of the band’s humor in recent years has been its practice of helpfully providing some background or guidance for how each album should be understood. “Smash the hegemony of dance”, they instructed regarding their previous album, 2013's Lady From Shanghai. For Carnival of Souls, Thomas describes the album as a soundtrack to a narrative, but not the film from which the album borrows its title. Rather, this is an album, we are assured, describing an afternoon wherein a man steps naked into a river and drifts along the bottom, observing the world above, for as long as he can hold his breath. Thomas has made long use of the river as metaphor in his work, and it doesn’t take too great a leap to see this particular river as representation of America itself. Such analogy is apt for our times. Perhaps this is the perpetual state in which we find ourselves, somewhere between drifting and drowning.
What is not in doubt: this is the most cohesive, band-centric album the current iteration of Pere Ubu has released, its strongest album of the new millennium. Unlike the previous couple releases, where the band often composed the music and Thomas added his lyrics later, the songs on this album were composed by the full band all together in one space, in this case on the road during the European tour supporting Lady From Shanghai. At times in recent years, significant parts of Ubu albums could seem like little more than Thomas telling stories over an interesting backdrop of sound. There’s no doubt that all players are connected here, the instrumentation serving as part of the conversation throughout the whole of the record, strengthening theme or providing counterpoint, even when Thomas’ road-weary storyteller’s voice takes the fore.
Carnival of Souls presents a carnivalesque parade of familiar reference points woven into a pastiche of otherworldly displacement. It opens with “Golden Surf II”, Pere Ubu's hardest driving song in years. It’s worth noting that Robert Wheeler (synthesizer and theremin), Michele Temple (bass), and Steven Mehlman (drums) have all been working members of Ubu longer than their “classic era” counterparts Allen Ravenstein, Tony Maimone, and Scott Kraus. Their playing in this deconstructed seduction song shows it while Thomas opines, “There oughta be a plan for the night / a plan that involves speed, light, and you by my side.” There follows instrumental cacophony and a choral chant of “It’s time to go”. Where? Why? To what end? Who cares, everyone knows you can trust a carnival barker.
The ominously titled “Drag the River” follows. Was the promise of Thomas’ invitation from the first song as simple and final as that offered to the Oxford Girl or so many other famous murder ballad victims? “Home is where the dead people go” Thomas sings, “all my friends”, before reminding us that “Time is a river” and rivers, we know, flow, eddie, merge, and end. “Dr. Faustus” returns us to Rt. 322 south of Meadville, the mythic town first introduced on the Two Pale Boys’ Erewhon album, where a porchsitting seer prophesizes passing motorists, their “hopes, dreams, fears trailing behind like scraps of paper that were torn from a map.” These are intimations of mortality, a direct counter-narrative to Wordsworth’s famous “trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.” In Thomas’ American landscape, we know neither where we’re coming from nor where we are going. We are all just driving endlessly.
“Bus Station” revisits the lyrics of “Kathleen” from Ubu’s 1993 album Story of My Life, as the second half of the album settles into a contemplation of the artifices of love. “Will you feed the monkey?” Thomas asks menacingly, noting that when you do it will love you, but at what cost? “You say you love me / I say what will you do for me?” he repeats, first in “Carnival”, then in the album’s masterpiece, yet another working of “Goodnight Irene”, this time titled simply “Irene”. This treatment is languid, as if recorded underwater. And this sequence of songs, it should be noted, offer newest Ubu member, clarinetist Darryl Boon, an opportunity to shine.
Finally, there is the 12-minute “Brother Ray”, one more reference point, this to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”. Fittingly, this album ends with an apocalypse. Yet another roadside prophet, calling from a Greyhound station with a purpose: “I wanta work a deal in heaven!” Before he goes off on his journey into the desert of California, he sees holy water rising from the orange groves, halos over the streetlights, and the stars coming undone. The back of the resulting postcard from Soda Mountain is scribbled over with one repeated word: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” An emptying of self into landscape, perhaps he has become an Emersonian transparent eyeball. What was seen? That’s the mystery in this carnival of souls.