Architecture of Language 1979 – 1982 is the second in a series of box sets planned by Fire Records that should see the whole of Pere Ubu’s collected works made available again. This project is one of the most valuable sonic excavations currently being made by any record label. Pere Ubu is a collective comprised of many members over time, a band of many faces and as many moods yet singular in its commitment to pursuing an independent artistic vision. Over 40 years, the band has produced some of the most uncompromising yet influential music of the 20th and 21st centuries. The material compiled here might qualify as among their most uncompromising of all.
This box set covers January 1978 through February 1982 and comprises three distinct iterations of the band’s lineup. New Picnic Time is the final record of the group that recorded The Modern Dance and Dub Housing: David Thomas, Tom Herman, Allen Ravenstine, Tony Maimone, and Scott Krauss. Mayo Thomson replaced Herman on guitar for The Art of Walking while Anton Fier took Krauss’ drum seat for the second time (though the first to be recorded) on Song of the Bailing Man. A fourth lp, Archectural Salvage collects live and alternate cuts along with a few unreleased songs from the time period.
As uncompromising as Ubu’s sound was, it’s worth remembering that they were making these sounds as innovators of a musical form quickly being labeled “new wave”, a period during which record companies were uncharacteristically willing to allow for experimentation in the search of profits. Assorted executives at Chrysalis records, which had released Dub Housing, were tuned in to how influential that album was becoming among post-punk artists and were convinced that more of the same would bring the band commercial success. Instead, the band recorded New Picnic Time, which perplexed the label, most critics, and many fans. In a PopMatters interview with A. Noah Harrison, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas said of New Picnic Time, “If I had to base my own reputation off just one album, that would be it. Cause what it’s doing, even to me, is terrifying. It really does take structure and rip its face off and peel it back, so for a moment, you can see something that’s pretty damn terrifying.” And for all the sonic disjointment that Thomas describes, oftentimes the most unsettling aspects of Ubu’s songs are the seemingly innocuous words, or Thomas’ attempts at finding the right language to match his unique vision of social dysfunction.
Pere Ubu were, on the three albums collected here, as evocative as they were provocative. The former, in fact, is so much more important than the latter, which is so much easier, really. Consider a song like “Kingdom Come” from New Picnic Time, which opens with the line “A hand, a face, a feeling” before descending into a sort of panicked gibberish; order returns with a line of self-reassurance, “These are the best times of all”, and the repeated chant of “Jehovah’s kingdom come.” It takes a while to realize that Thomas is evoking a childhood nightmare scenario. Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar’s 1980 ballad “Hell Is for Children” famously addresses child abuse, but here, two years earlier, Thomas embodies what it’s like to be the child subject of that abuse, all the more deeper via his evocation of the experience versus the well-intentioned heavy-handedness of the Benatar song. Thomas runs us through a grinder of pain, false reassurance, futile prayer, and, ultimately, emotional numbness.
New Picnic Time might be the most religious in its themes or references among Ubu’s albums. The songs do not make any unified statement but offer rather an impressionistic personal account built of fragments of memory, habit, and observation. Do Thomas’ stuttering, skat vocals cross into a sort of speaking in tongues on occasion? Possibly, but if he is speaking in tongues, his subjects are not the high holy but the lowly mundane: morning sunlight, the neighbor’s dogs, boiling water, society’s empty aphorisms (flies in the ointment, don’t rock the boat, make hay while the sun shines), and the like. In many ways, this gibberish evokes a child in search of language, trying to find the means to be heard, to break from isolation. A personal horror. The chants underneath “Small Was Fast” that contribute to its unhinged emotional disjointment and the paranoid disillusion of the repeated, disappointed cry of “I waited for you!” are met only by Ravenstine’s cricket-like synth chirps.
There is displacement at the heart of this album, a search for home, harkening back to The Modern Dance and its track, “Laughing”, with its realization that “We can live in the empty spaces of this life.” Thomas seeks solace from isolation in “All the Dogs Are Barking”, humming hymn-like to himself as he stutters a series of fragmented, declaratory statements, “You gotta have…” returning always to a stuttering “happiness”, before settling on “home”. Ravenstine’s blurps and pulses form a drone that wraps around Herman’s machine-like guitar-strokes, almost obliterating the disembodied voice that rises up from another channel with the final word: “Help!” Thomas repeats the cry again in the opening “One Less Worry” before the song spirals into a multi-perspective interior monologue of indecision. “This doesn’t seem to be a very happy person” he sings to himself in “Goodbye”, which leads into the mysterious “Sound of Sand”, yet another nod to an unlearned, incomprehensible language.
This collection’s title, Architecture of Language, shares its name with a late-period linguistic work from Noam Chomsky. In it, Chomsky tells a fable about language development: “To tell a fairy tale about it, it’s almost as if there were some higher primate wandering around a long time ago and some random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower, and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain.” This sounds like it could be part of the de-evolutionary mythology of fellow Ohioans Devo, but it’s not; rather, this parable lies at the center of the most influential theory of language evolution of the 20th century. Of course David Thomas and Pere Ubu would be paying attention to this, both in the time of this music’s creation and retrospectively as it’s repackaged for a new generation of listeners still struggling to catch up.
Language not only conveys meaning, it creates it. Invent a new language and one creates a new way of making meaning, thereby opening the doors of perception to new meanings themselves. Pop music, which Ubu has always ascribed to creating, is a multi-layered form of language, combining melody, meter, lyrics and other forms of meaning. The mass appeal, and power, of commercial pop music is transmitted via its very familiarity and predictability. The mass audience understands that low cellos or keyboards convey heartbreak while familiar lyrical tropes amplify the mood. Ubu’s project has always been an exploration of new forms of language, both sonically and lyrically. Familiar sounds are warped into unfamiliar configurations, new sounds are created out of familiar instruments, language is twisted into pure glossolalic emotion beyond meaning, and comfortable clichés are hammered into dissociative new reference points located on the map of some undiscovered country.
Thomas is, as Greil Marcus calls him in a 2006 essay “a crank prophet” of American culture, an outsider peering into the windows of America’s middle class, and laughing at the folly of what he sees. On the two follow-up albums to New Picnic Time, Thomas, the seer, takes the form of an innocent. There is an ongoing sense of child-like wonder and confusion at the world throughout these albums, an ongoing internal dialog of innocence giving way to experience, but not without a fight. It’s something that has been there all along. It’s there in the ongoing strangled child’s cries and gulps of Thomas’ search for language in songs like “Laughing”, “Kingdom Come”, “Small Was Fast”, and it’s even present in the adolescent petulance that fuels the rebellion of “Final Solution.” On The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man, Mayo Thompson proves the perfect guitar foil for Thomas’ lyrical explorations, his lighter, jazz-inflected tones are perfect bright covers for the darker undertones of innocence meeting experience.
“Rhapsody in Pink” offers Thomas’ narrator floating underwater as “a big pink ball” at the beach. “Arabia” offers a carnival calliope melody slowly coming undone. Thomas sings, “Bare bones are petrified / And later they are classified / A skeleton may indicate / But imagination animates”; these lines from Bailing Man‘s “Petrified”, with their perfect encapsulation of a child’s fascination with dinosaurs, convey the constant battle between practical knowledge and flights of fancy, and they do well to demonstrate the unbreakable value of those imaginative flights, the true fuel of our reasoning. But, of course, we live in a world where “The child [is no longer] the father of the man”; rather, contemporary America would bury that child (though not before milking its consumerist value for all its worth), surgically removing individual imagination if it could (though, the market actually does a pretty good job of doing so remotely). This is the battle that Thomas wages on behalf of America’s children, or, at least, their right to their own language and their own imaginations.
A new wave should be more than a different sound making the same old statements; a new wave needs a new vision, a new system of beliefs to match its new sounds. Pere Ubu was one of the few bands of their time to understand and respond accordingly.