The Residents' first album of entirely new material in five years is being greeted as a return to the pop format explored on previous albums such as Duck Stab and (the aptly titled) The Commercial Album. However, a few listens to Demons Dance Alone make it readily apparent that when discussing the phenomenon known as the Residents, labels like "pop" and "commercial" are relative terms. The world's most mysterious band (do they really have any competition?), to those not familiar with their copious body of work, are currently celebrating their 30th year of confounding audiences all the while keeping their identities a secret.
This much we know: after migrating to San Francisco from Shreveport, Louisiana in the early '70s, the band began composing music in tandem with their filmmaking ventures and the eventual founding of the Cryptic Corporation management company. They never revealed their identities, instead opting to disguise themselves in not only their most famous guise of giant eyeballs with tuxedo tails and top hats, but also suits constructed of newspapers, grim reaper outfits, asbestos suits, and in recent years (due to the theft of an eyeball) a single skull mask. While they've never fit in with any particular movement -- not socially relevant enough to be lumped in with counterculture icons yet (somewhat) kindred spirits Zappa and Beefheart, not virtuostic enough to be considered progressive rock, and just too artsy to be entirely embraced by punk and new wave (despite a blistering and irreverent cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction" in 1977) -- they have forged their singular vision immune to trends and fads. So the news that the current album was written in the wake of the events of September 11th and may reveal a more personal side to the band was nothing short of unprecedented. Again, however, the world of the Residents follows its own peculiar logic.
The disc is split into two parts: I. Tongue (divided into three further sections, A. Loss, B. Denial, and C. Three Metaphors) and II. Demons Dance Alone. While the seven songs comprising Loss are more sparsely arranged and slower paced than the rest of the album, and it may be appropriate to call them introspective, don't expect them to contain commentary on current events. While "Life would be Wonderful" expresses a longing to "visit with some memories I made once upon a time", it still manages to incorporate a mouse named Norman who lived in a sock. "Caring" is likewise about burying one's father but it also features a poodle named Pooh (it's good to see that the band's affinity for goofy names is still intact). The songs make more use of guitar than we've come to expect from the increasingly technology-oriented tricksters and some of the tracks are so underdeveloped as to be minimalist. A lovely female voice (you weren't actually expecting names?) handles the vocals on a number of tracks, beginning with "The Weatherman". While her voice is agreeable, its suitability can be questionable; the incongruity between the warped sensibility of the music and the prettiness of her voice can simply be too great. The remainder of the vocals belong to the same damaged male Southern drawl that we've had three decades to get used to. "Caring" makes use of an interesting arrangement featuring horns and overdriven guitar, while "Honey Bear" employs a somewhat funky beat suggesting that perhaps the Residents aren't completely immune to current trends. "Neediness" is a plaintive cry for an unspecified need laid over an impressively jazzy guitar and a trumpet melody before building to a harrowing crescendo.
Denial consists of slightly more typical Residents fare. Songs are punctuated by outbursts of freakish abandon, and characters such as Mickey Macaroni play more prominent roles. "Thundering Skies" opens the movement with a melody played on what sounds like a Jew's harp and "Mickey Macaroni" turns out to be one of the disc's better songs, relying on a vintage organ and employing a duet with either a very young boy or a female with a voice more suited to the material at hand. Three Metaphors continues the upbeat tone, but the lyrics once again turn insightful. "Make Me Moo" may simultaneously be one of the goofiest and most affecting songs the Residents have ever recorded. They deviate somewhat from their usual couplets that make Noel Gallagher look like Shakespeare, instead intoning, "Why can't I be a cow / Anyhow / Cows never cry" in a heartbreaking childish voice.
The album's final track (and the entire second movement) is the eponymous "Demons Dance Alone". Ever cryptic at first glance, the song could easily be a comment on current events ("I had hoped to fill my years with / More than melancholy tears / But the demon makes me dance alone") but on closer inspection appears more likely to be an observation on more personal choices ("Knowingly I followed it / Took the hook and swallowed it / But then I found it dancing in my home"). Regardless of the album's source of inspiration, the mere fact that the Residents have added a personal element to their music -- besides being unexpected -- also adds an entirely new dimension to their work.
Listening to a Residents album is an experience not unlike watching a David Lynch film. Both can be maddeningly opaque, thoroughly engaging, and wholly unlike anything else you've ever encountered. In a musical landscape populated by sub-genres within sub-genres ad infinitum, it can be a somewhat disquieting experience to find you have virtually no landmarks by which to gain your bearings. However, if you enjoy a good bit of aural disorientation from time to time, look no further. The world's most mysterious band has just become a bit more accessible and that can only be a good thing.