Talking Light is the bringing together of what has become two separate threads of the Residents continuum. On the one side we had the storyteller and on the other we had remix as composition. For the past several years, they have alternated which is at the forefront and which stands aside, so much so that I began to suspect there were multiple groups of Residents in play.
As it turns out, that was not the case (or maybe it was, but we must always read each new development as if it were intended). The current show presents a new face for the band. As with The Bunny Boy, the lead singer has taken an identity (in this case, Randy), but he has also identified the other group members: Chuck, Bob, and Carlos. Now, I don’t for a moment believe these are their actual names, but that’s not the game we play with The Residents. As a participant in their larger social contract, I accept the details presented to me and try to fit them into what has come before.
So we know that there are now three Residents where previously there were four (despite the number on stage most often being six; again, we go with the official traditional four-piece). The closest they’ve had to individual identities before was referring to them by mask (such as Mr. Blue or Mr. Skull). This is a significant change for the group, and perhaps the hope is that, with names in place, the public will finally leave the identity mystery behind and focus on the music instead.
As mentioned, the concept takes two forms: stories and music interpretation. Within this tour, they are improvising or randomizing the stories with each performance, which makes the fact they are releasing recordings of each show online a beneficial move. Nobody need miss anything for the simple reason that they couldn’t attend a concert. Also, the truly devoted can slavishly compare all of the performances and calculate just how random the improvised portions are.
Which I’ve not done, because that’s a job for the young and foolish (although passionate and sincere). I’ve downloaded three of the shows, because they are priced at about one-third of what a physical release would be. But if I make the assumption that each version of a particular story is noticeably different, yet the same, I can draw another conclusion from this show.
The titular Talking Light is television. This is made clear by the accompanying artwork, and of course the show takes place in a living room. So perhaps the songs portion is the television show – that which we’ve all gathered into the living room to watch. That leaves the stories to be the advertising breaks. Indeed, most incorporate clips from old, familiar commercials. And what are commercials, artistically speaking, but the same messages repeated with just enough variation to stand out but not enough to become something else? Each Coca-Cola ad is different, but they all get the same message across. Herein lies the explanation behind the improvised portions of the show.
I have recordings from two US performances, and one from the in-progress European tour. And while the execution of the songs does differ somewhat, they feel more like the natural evolution that takes place when material is played repeatedly. The stories, apart from some pre-recorded dialogue, change in significant ways each night. The musical beds they are laid upon seem to be variations on a theme, so “Talking Light” remains recognizable and distinct from “Unseen Sister,” but each instance is itself a new song. It’s like Doc Severinsen and his wacky jackets. Each was unique, but all were clearly his.
I could spend several pages writing about the Mirror People story within the show. Mirrors are symbols of introspection and identity, of perception and reality – all in all the cornerstones of The Residents. But as I near my arbitrarily self-imposed limit, I will just end with this question: who are we really seeing now?