I don’t know what I think of Momus. Ambivalence is pretty much as far as I ever get when considering the jet-setting Scottish-born artiste and provocateur. But, who knows, maybe that’s the whole point, maybe that’s all I’m supposed to feel. In which case, Momus’ latest, Oskar Tennis Champion, succeeds admirably, since even after listening to it a number of times, it’s still made no lasting impression on my psyche.
Momus (a.ka. Nick Currie) began musical life in the early ’80s as a member of the early indiepop band the Happy Family. He soon left to forge a solo career, and quickly achieved equal measures of success and notoriety for his witty lyrics exploring psychological and sexual themes and outspoken public declarations. While his music was originally rooted in folk and indiepop, it later verged off into an almost wholly electronic sound, liberally interwoven with elements of chamber music. Over the years, Momus has tried his hand at art exhibition and musical curation; he even released an album bringing back the artist/patron model (1999’s Stars Are Forever) in which all the songs were commissioned by people willing to pay Momus $1000 for the privilege.
Having previously lived in London, Paris and New York, Momus has now taken up Tokyo as his home sweet metropolis of choice. Momus’ music has long exhibited a vast knowledge and appreciation of the pop cultural splendors of Japan (and he has achieved some of his greatest success among Japanese fans). But while Oskar Tennis Champion reflects some elements of his adopted country’s music, from touches of kabuki to flashes of shibuya-kei and j-pop, it’s mainly a laptop-type album that could have been made anywhere in the world. (In fact, the final product was created Stateside, as bizarrely, the whole thing was remixed by John Talaga, a native of Bay City, Michigan.) Whatever its geographic origins, the overriding sound on Oskar Tennis Champion, is a fairly sterile one: a chuga-chuga sort of electro-muddle, all pops and whistles and bon mots — and no heart.
Listening to Oskar Tennis Champion feels like hard work for some reason. Perhaps the key to appreciating this particular incarnation of Momus is to pretend he’s a component of an installation in a contemporary art gallery, or that the album is the soundtrack to an off-off-off-Broadway avant garde theater piece, rather than trying to experience it as music that is enjoyable or thought-provoking in and of itself. Oskar Tennis Champion seems to require attention, engagement — but frankly, I’m just not sure it’s worth the effort.
If you’re not familiar with Momus, Oskar Tennis Champion really isn’t the place to start. Go back to one of his seventeen other albums, and you’ll likely find something more accessible and easier to form an opinion of.
If you are familiar with Momus, there’s not much more I can tell you. There are the typical talked-through vocals, clever wordplay and smug self-satisfaction. There are the usual jokey song titles (“My Sperm Is Not Your Enemy”, “Is It Because I’m a Pirate?”), the usual fascination with the perverse (“Electrosexual Sewing Machine”) and literary illusions (“Beowulf (I Am Deformed)”). We get a track in German (“A Little Schubert”) and a composition which recreates the main musical themes of the album in ringtones (“The Ringtone Cycle”). As a bonus, “The Last Communist” has the paranoiac heavy keyboard so prevalent in German-influenced electropop.
If you already like Momus’ compendium of musical and lyrical quirks, then maybe Oskar Tennis Champion will seem the logical next step. But if you’re ambivalent like me, the whole thing will leave you indifferent and untouched.