Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

Budokan Boys Ruminate on Loss with ‘So Broken Up About You Dying’

The third album by the impossible-to-categorize no-wave duo Budokan Boys is a meditation on death filled with songs that are both strange and strangely moving.

So Broken Up About You Dying
Budokan Boys
Ever/Never Records
2 October 2020

Like so much of the best music, it’s hard to pin down the sound of Budokan Boys. Jeff T. Byrd and Michael Jeffrey Lee – Americans who met in New Orleans in 2012 and have since settled in Europe – may only be a duo, but their sound is huge, varied, and difficult to categorize. There are elements of no-wave, nihilistic synthpop, plenty of punk rage, Sparks-like absurdism, and even a bit of Beefheart-esque dadaism. But thankfully, their music can never be accused of being unpredictable or mainstream.

With Budokan Boys’ two previous albums, That’s How You Become a Clown (2018) and DAD IS BAD (2019), Byrd (writes the music and plays synths, guitar, and saxophone) and Lee (sings, plays guitar, and writes the lyrics) established this unusual mix of instrumentation and arrangements that became their unique sound. For So Broken Up About You Dying, their latest album, heavy thematic elements are added: death and loss. Byrd recently lost his father, Lee, his brother. They decided that the new album, recorded in Vienna last year – would be a tribute. And while sonically, it doesn’t differ much from their previous work, that sense of loss brings a layer of weightiness that hangs over much of the album.

The album opens with the funereal, march-like “The Magic Beggar”, which slowly builds in intensity as layers of mostly synthetic instruments are methodically added to the mix. Byrd creates a huge sound through bits of mysterious keyboard melodies, effects, and saxophone riffs. “Have you heard about the magic beggar?” Lee sings. “The magic beggar / He appears in his rags / And he can take you anywhere.” This mysterious character sounds tantalizing but dangerous. “You mustn’t tell anyone about the beggar,” Lee warns. “Not under stress / Not under torture.” It’s a gorgeous but unsettling overture.

There’s refreshing variety in the songs here. “Dee Wants Death” is a macabre slice of strutting new-wave funk. Alongside simple yet engaging keyboard riff, Lee sings in what sounds like a treated, sped-up yelp of a voice about someone who wants to die. The foreboding subject matter is given an almost celebratory vibe as Lee sings with gleeful abandon and Byrd’s sax wailing eggs him on. “Rip U” continues this strange dichotomy of manic musical energy and death-obsessed lyrical subject matter. A frenetic tempo, Lee’s rockabilly-style ravings, and a seemingly out-of-place steel drum synth patch and disturbingly violent lyrics make for strange bedfellows. But Byrd and Lee’s creations are thick with inspiration and imagination that create a truly immersive listening experience.

When there’s no semblance of a recognizable beat or traditional song structure to hang a song onto, things get even stranger. The title track has Lee feeding his truly odd spoken monologue through multiple effects, giving it a robotic, alien-like shape. Byrd adds odd musical accompaniment that skirts both modern classical and free jazz; Lee addresses a loved one’s death in purely logistical terms, giving loss a cold, clinical feel. “I took your mattress to the dump / threw it over a ravine / I really heaved it.” While the song “Beach” is imbued with an engaging synth-punk atmosphere, Lee sings of the precious nature of living with a guttural, comical growl that sounds like Cookie Monster at CBGB’s. Refusing to make an album about death the traditional way, Byrd and Lee not only take the road less traveled – they build a home there and invite all their friends to revel in the weirdness of it.

Meanwhile, there are hooks buried underneath this truly unusual album. “Sleeping Doggies” might be the closest thing there is to a genuine pop song on So Broken Up About You Dying. Over a bed of staccato synths and stop/start beats, Lee croons a warning on the dangers of overthinking: “You gotta let the sleeping doggies lie / If you keep digging / You may not like what you find.” Later, in typical fashion, he gets weirdly specific: “Now don’t act so innocent / I know you did hard drugs last weekend / And I know you been lying to Uncle Sam.”

The album concludes just as oddly as it begins with “The Magic Mountain”. Over a bizarre bit of sound collage backing, guest Lenka Soukupová recites a lifeless, accented narration that sounds like Kafka-esque instruction to – what, exactly? Transcendence? A drug trip? Death? The song, like the rest of this unique, beautiful, grotesque album, offers no easy answers. So Broken Up About You Dying has plenty of uneasy moments, but they live comfortably among moments of more traditional pop music. That’s one of the things that makes Budokan Boys such a great band – just when you think you’ve been lulled into complacency, they let out a hearty chuckle and pull the rug right under you.

RATING 8 / 10