The Robot Ate Me, a band consisting primarily of indie mastermind Ryland Bouchard, seem to operate on two levels, alternating gently left-of-center albums of (relatively) pop gems with willfully avant garde, at points utterly incomprehensible art projects that either annoy beyond belief or entirely astonish. Their debut, 2002’s They Ate Themselves, was more along the lines of this first category, but its follow-up, 2005’s On Vacation, was a double-disc, World War II-themed concept album divided between the more conventional melodies of disc two and the wonderfully unique (if often disturbing) Holocaust musings of disc one. The music here was intentionally old in feel, sounding like it could very well have come straight out of a 1940s phonograph, and Bouchard’s lyrics, drawled with a perfectly contrived air of detachment, knowingly, sarcastically glazed over mentions of mass killing with mundanities like “I kill better when I drink Pepsi” on tracks like “The Genocide Ball” and “Every Nazi Plane Has a Cross”. I know people that love this album, but I know about as many that hate it; I go back and forth, although I generally come down in its favor. The Robot Ate Me’s next 2005 release, the brighter-toned Carousel Waltz, seemed a return to their more conventional first style — it was safe, catchy, and easy to like; their latest, Good World, clocking in at about 20 minutes for 17 tracks, makes no such pretences.
Opening track “The Hunter #1” is almost breathtaking in its quiet beauty. It fades in on gentle acoustic guitar chords, while Ryland Bouchard sings in a fragile, wavering falsetto. “You were hunter,” he sings, “I was praying.” The lines are simple but powerful in their wordplay, and when the whispery thrift-store clarinets come in, after 43 seconds, the track ends. These are beautiful pearls of music cut short before they have the time to wear out their welcome, incredibly tiny but gorgeous matchbox paintings, flowers that blossom for an instant and then disappear.
“Sin Like Holy Men” is another highlight, backing Bouchard’s softly cooing vocalizations with piano chords of sweetly childlike simplicity and flourishes of clarinet. “Bloody Knife #3” is similarly poignant, contrasting the title with impossibly clear high-pitched chords and innocently-intoned lyrics from Bouchard: “One, slice / Two, slice / Three, slice / Four”. “Celebration Time” begins dolce enough, but gradually peels away into a dark stomp of crashing, thunderous drums and ominously bleating clarinet. What makes this album so interesting, beyond the spare instrumentation (apparently constructed entirely from an eighties synth, an ’80s drum machine, a thrift store clarinet, and an 1800s piano — out of tune, of course), is the hint of a deeper, mythological story that’s never fully explained. “Djien”, according to the press release, is apparently the story of a spider who cannot be defeated because its heart has been buried underground; the Stone Giants are giant stone creatures who are invulnerable except for on the soles of their feet, and She-Owl and Bloody Knife are apparently married. There’s really no way to get any more concrete information, but it’s intriguing enough, and the songs themselves hint at some deeper progression that’s never really elaborated on, as the songs themselves tend to work more as shifting moods.
There are some people that will most certainly hate this. They won’t “get” the music, they will hate the lack of any real specific story, they will feel cheated by the album’s length (or lack of it). And, on the other hand, there are some people that will love this.
I am one of them.