The Murder City Devils: Thelema

The Murder City Devils
Sub Pop

There’s no accounting for taste. So why do people write and read reviews? One answer may be an implicit belief in the commonality of human experience: if we can agree (or at best agree to disagree) about taste, then there must be something binding us all together. Arguments about the so-called canon of course call in to question not only a tradition, therefore, but also certain received notions about what constitutes humanity.

As a producer and consumer of such judgements, I try my best to arbitrate not from a universal standard (thumbs up, thumbs down) but from the standards set up by the work itself. In this case, The Murder City Devils are serving up a particular post-punk neo-gothic fare — whether or not this particular strategy suits my own personal tastes, I have to consider first whether these Devils are up to the task they’ve set themselves.

Said task isn’t easy, not least of all because it’s a rather rigid genre they’re working in. I’ve never seen The Murder City Devils, but when I imagine them, I see a lot of black leather and velvet and lacy sleeves. Their abrasiveness could more accurately be described as salubriousness — a stumbling drunk kind of rancor, heavily laced with self-loathing. You know the type, a sort of combination Lizard King / Baudelaire, all dark eyeliner and heavy jewlery. The album cover features a nineteenth century ceramic hand, marked like a phrenological head with the locations of the “life line” and the “heart line”. Such charming imagery evokes a time when science and soothsaying had not entirely parted ways. Just as Jim Morrison used Native American imagery and ritual to color his music with a kind of intuitive, pre-cultural authenticity, the MCDs seem to be using this outdated augery to suggest a kind of murky spirituality. So what is their augury? Whose entrails are they reading?

I think the answer here would have to be Nick Cave — a comparison both facile and accurate. The presskit’s reassures me that such influences have “crumbled away” leaving the MCDs with a sharply honed “vitality and style all their own”. Well, in the spirit of judging things by their own standards, I’d have to say that they protest too much — as a famous dead white guy once said.

In other words, I don’t find anything on this album that would surprise or shock the expectations of even the most committed neo-gothic Lizard Prince. There’s rage aplenty, but nothing on this, the six-piece’s fourth recording, sounds like full-on assault. On the other hand, even when vocalist Spencer Moody (um, is that a stage name?) croons, it’s more like a cigarette stained growl. The beats are propulsive, heavy on the downbeat, and the two guitars rip into each other with all the delicacy of a chainsaw “Turkey in the Straw”. With such a hidebound image, any of the newfound “depth” and “melody” advertised in the presskit is bound to be cosmetic at best. If you go for that stuff, you won’t mind another monolithic helping. The rest of us may prefer more subtle fare.

Thelema is less an album than an EP, with only six short cuts. However, if the MCDs are in fact trying to wean themselves off the withered teat of their aging aesthetic, only one track shows any promise. “364 Days” is a rolicking, dark Christmas carol, an “open letter to Saint Nicolas”. With its weepy violin, waltz time, and gut-wrenching keening, it is the perfect carol for all you Scrooges out there. Moody sets the scene, with the kids all asleep, waiting for St. Nick — and “while they wait we can drink.” The chorus exhorts the Jolly Old Elf to “take off your boots / pour a drink / try not to cry / try not to think” — after lamenting the 364 days spent all alone — “and a thousand more tears”. The feel is both doo-wop and Moulin Rouge, all tawdry waltz and descending bassline, with a refreshingly acoustic guitar line providing the swing. As the choruses build, Moody’s wail gets rougher, his diction sloppier.

If there was ever a man to cry into the eggnog, it’s Moody. Trouble is, if you do that every year, pretty soon no one invites you anymore.