The period covered by this box set is perhaps the least understood or appreciated among Pere Ubu’s many iterations, yet these might just be their most vibrantly subversive recordings.
Greil Marcus, seeking to encapsulate David Thomas' musical career in a 2003 essay, called the Pere Ubu leader a "crank prophet bestride America". Re-listening to the three albums and extras collected in this latest retrospective box set from Fire Records, Pere Ubu: Drive, He Said 1994-2002, that description returned and made me seek that nearly 15-year-old essay out.
In it, Marcus quotes Thomas remarking before a European audience, that "We live in a time of magic, superstition, and ignorance. We are the last generation that will ever know what it is like to live in an enlightened world." In light of recent events in American and Britain, it might be quite tempting to offer up the three albums collected here (Ray Gun Suitcase, Pennsylvania, and St. Arkansas) as prophetic, as unheeded warnings from the last golden age of the 1990s.
Pundits have, after all, been twisting themselves into Mobius strips trying to find a reason for the current American political state. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Why didn't anyone see it happening? Well, might the speculation go, David Thomas did see it coming, but we were distracted by dotcoms and Britpop, and nobody was listening. But Thomas himself would probably go out of his way to disclaim such speculations. As he stated in a 2015 interview with PopMatters, "I don't trust bands that are political. Politics and music don't really mix." So, if these aren't deliberately political statements or attempts at prophecy, what are they?