The Residents are some kind of American treasure. There is a multitude of reasons for this, but let’s just focus on two right now. One: this group is resilient. They’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years. Few artists get anywhere near that landmark, especially without losing their integrity along the way. Two: They are just plain weird, and right now, if not always, we need some weird in our lives. Weird distracts. Weird makes us think. And most importantly, weird makes us smile. So, the release of a career spanning Residents box set is right on time. 80 Aching Orphans is 80 tracks spread over four discs, so it’s a heavy load, but for new and old fans alike, it has a lot to offer.
If you don’t know about the Residents, well, that’s almost expected. The band might even enjoy it in a way. As a group they subscribe to a belief, which may or may not be of their making, called ‘The Theory of Obscurity’, meaning that being unknown frees the artist from expectations. They are then allowed to do as they like without restrictions. They run their own record label for most of their releases, and It’s still unclear what humans are even behind the group. So without reservation, we can confidently say that the Residents do whatever they want without giving a care. Their first record cover was a defaced version of the Meet the Beatles iconic front side. One of their most famous singles is a subversive and screeching deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Those two examples were in the ’70s, but they still haven’t stopped their independent streak. Nearly 40 years later, just this year, they released a sprawling concept record about 20th-century train wrecks. They’re still doing it weird, and they’re still doing it however they like.
As for 80 Aching Orphans, it’s all over the place. The title of the record refers to the chaos created by splitting up the work into an unorganized whole. It makes sense too. The Residents albums are nearly all thematic in nature. When you place “Insincere”, a lyrically bold song from 2009 about carnal desires, next to “Hard and Tenderly”, a song from a mid-’80s soundtrack album, you get disoriented. There’s just too much to process here all at once. Each song is so heavy on context and style, the juxtaposition is brain scrambling. There’s a beauty in this though: this album is a mixer designed to give you a taste. You’ll want more, and you’ll explore.
Fortunately, the exploration is the best part. If the group grabs you with these random tracks, then the deeper dig will be even more satisfying. There are so many rabbit holes to get lost in with this group. From their deconstructing ‘cover’ albums (Gershwin, Presley, Beatles, etc) to their multimedia projects (games, theatric stage shows, YouTube videos, etc) to their off-center narratives (a talent manager falls in love with a pair of gender-fluid Siamese twins, Mole people, etc), the Residents are nothing if not engaging. If you’re looking to fall into this curious world, 80 Aching Orphans is a great place to get an overhead look at a monumental American repertoire by an impressive American band. Dig in.