Momus: Pubic Intellectual - An Anthology, 1986-2016

Hilarious, catchy, incisive, and exhausting, Pubic Intellectual captures Momus in all of his forms, from lo-fi pop craftsman to boundary-pushing satirist.


Pubic Intellectual: An Anthology, 1986-2016

Label: Cherry Red
US Release Date: 2016-08-19
UK Release Date: 2016-08-19
When Michael Bracewell wrote his first book about music, England Is Mine, he grouped me with Green Gartside and Paddy McAloon. We were "clever pop", but the label, coming from an English person, is already a reproach. Don't you know what happens to clever people? They fail commercially, and they're ignored critically because – especially in Britain, and especially in pop – the critically-acclaimed doesn't diverge long from what's commercial.

-- Momus, on the song "I Was a Maoist Intellectual" in the liner notes for Pubic Intellectual

Momus is not typically thought of as a pop singer. Elements of pop music can always be found in his wide-ranging discography, but critics are quickest to jump on Momus' eccentricities rather than his chops as a songwriter. There's the matter of the name Momus itself; of all the possible nom de plumes Scottish author and musician Nick Currie could have chosen for himself, he picked the name borne by the Greek god of satire, not a figure at the top of the roster in the schoolbook rendition of the Greek gods.

The music Currie makes under the Momus name is invariably, almost comically lo-fi. His career has come a long way since its mid-'80s beginnings, but aesthetically it still smacks of cheap Casio keyboards and cloying pad synths. The opening drum beat on "Tinnitus" sounds like the startup music for an early '90s gaming console. In a Pitchfork review of the 1999 album Stars Forever, comprised of "song portraits" of random people and organizations that paid Momus a handsome $1,000 USD to write a song about them, Brent DiCrescenzo argues, "Momus's greatest flaw… will continue to be his disrespect for pop music."

Momus' lyrics are also perceived as decidedly non-pop. With taboo subject matter (see the necrophilia-centric "The Cabriolet" from 1989's Don't Stop the Night) and Foucauldian song titles ("The History of Sexual Jealousy Parts 17-24"), Momus looks a lot more like the product of a Continental philosophy collective than a pop scene. To use his own words, Momus is more clever than catchy.

Yet if there's one effective case that Pubic Intellectual: An Anthology, 1986-2016 makes, it's that Momus is a better pop songwriter than most are willing to give him credit for. A three-disc, three and a half-hour collection drawing from every corner of the Momus discography, Pubic Intellectual is an exhausting thing to get through. Momus' humor and pop bonafides are enough to hold interest for quite awhile, but even the ardent fan might have to press pause on occasion. Apropos of his Greek forebear, Momus pokes and challenges his audience, luring them in with a catchy pop hook and then interrogating their assumptions about identity, sexuality, and a myriad of other topics. This philosophical rigor, combined with an unrelentingly drab production aesthetic, makes Pubic Intellectual an album best taken in pieces.

As conceived by Momus and his long-time label Cherry Red, however, this is not a bad thing. Pubic Intellectual's packaging is unfussy and to the point; rather than give in to the excesses of lavish career retrospective box sets, Cherry Red makes the music the selling point of the record. All three CDs are housed in a small paper box set -- each with its own sleeve -- and are accompanied by a booklet containing thoughtful and witty liner notes by Momus himself. The lack of bells and whistles in this affordably priced anthology (£12.99 GBP, or about $17 USD) lets the music shine above all else, and there's plenty here that shines. Like Momus' career as a whole, there are small stretches of Pubic Intellectual that drag on; "Rhetoric" typifies the weakest of Momus' material, all mumbles and airless synths. Yet for every "Rhetoric", there's a bout of brilliant pop, like the jaunty "Stefano Zarelli" and what Currie identifies as the most well known Momus tune, "I Want You, But I Don't Need You".

If there's one song that can be taken as synecdoche for both Pubic Intellectual and the Momus style overall, it's "Closer to You", which originally featured on the 1987 Poison Boyfriend LP. The song is firmly anchored on a basic yet catchy earworm: "Oooh, it's true / Girl I'm only dying to be closer to you." This two-line chorus pops up at the end of long, convoluted verses where Momus describes women he is attracted to while also repudiating his earlier, more immature self:

But some of those are bitter records, records which accuse women, girls like you, of using your attractiveness wantonly and wilfully to trap and to paralyse men who want them and can never have them, men who sometimes feel the perverse urge to trash the women they desire the most, who imagine they despise all those immaculate visions... what adolescent crap, what kind of idiot would sing that? Oh, not me...

Because the rambling verses take up the bulk of the song, one could classify "Closer to You" as a spoken word piece broken up by a pop hook. But Momus' fragile earnestness in the chorus is what keeps the track tethered to the realm of pop. At the end of every stanza of his clumsy musings, he always comes back to the hook.

Far from being disrespectful of pop music, as DiCrescenzo alleges, Momus likes to tinker with it, challenge it both at a compositional and lyrical level. On "The Homosexual", one of his best numbers, Momus indulges in an '80s pop aesthetic while taking square aim at societal expectations of sexuality. (The song also includes the immortal line: "Hell hath no fury like an insecure Englishman.") One can only view Momus as a hater of pop if he believes that there is a set pop orthodoxy that must be respected, a premise that Momus roundly rejects. Momus can have his avant-garde intellectualism and be catchy too. As Jason MacNeil understates in his PopMatters review of the 2009 Joemus, "Momus has always done his own thing."

Undoubtedly, Momus is an archetypal case of an "acquired taste". Even at his most accessible, his muted vocals and seemingly no-budget production quality do upset what most people think of when they think of pop. But in that lo-fi production there is one compelling aspect about Momus, in that he lends himself to cover versions. The forlorn lyrics and minor-key melancholy of "Bibliotek" are compelling even in Momus' low-key style, but they're even better suited to a fully fleshed arrangement with acoustic instruments. Pubic Intellectual is an ideal introduction to Momus both for the first-time listener and for the musician interested in creating unique interpretations of this oft-overlooked songwriter. Momus' catalogue is rife with tracks that, in a stranger world than this one, would be top ten hits.

In closing this review, I have a confession to make. I spent two thirds of my listening experience with this anthology believing it to be titled Public Intellectual, thinking it a cheeky reference to Momus' lack of popularity. Upon preparing to write this review I saw on the spine of the CD that it is actually called Pubic Intellectual, which is equally apropos, referencing Momus' penchant for crass humor and his intellectual proclivities. ("As a Calvinist, I'm an inherently guilty animal," Momus confesses in the liner notes.) In that bit of mis-seeing, I experienced what I so often experience with Momus' music: taking his songs to mean one thing when there is more happening than the ear (and, in this case, the eye) lets on.

Due to the quirks that make Momus who he is -- quirks that he shows no interest in abandoning -- he will likely become a curio in the annals of pop history, a "clever" songwriter juxtaposed against the popular ones. But Pubic Intellectual succeeds as a compendium of oddball pop and a testament to Momus' ingenuity as a thinker and, yes, a pop songwriter. Above all else, the anthology embraces Momus' multifariousness, clinging to rather than running away from the numerous ways he presents himself. As he sings in "Stefano Zarelli": "Everyone's just a mess of contradictions/ And we all write fictions each day… / Why not learn to love your contradictions? / Why not live life to the full?" Pubic Intellectual is a document of a life lived to the fullest.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.