Animal Lover is not the successor to Brumalia that I had imagined, or indeed can imagine, even with the evidence right in front of me. It feels like The Residents have taken a step back a few years, taken a different turn, and continued down a new path. Perhaps Brumalia was an offshoot or considered a failure (or considered so successful that they are already finished with that direction). This is what I respect most about The Residents: their willingness to try something new, and if they exhaust that possibility or it doesn’t work out, they regroup and carry on with something else. The indomitability of the human spirit is always refreshing to see.
The album recalls a previous work, Eskimo, in that it is accompanied with short stories for each song which expand upon what we are hearing. The difference here is that Eskimo was an instrumental album, so the stories provided context. With Animal Lover, the stories present a different perspective, giving fullness to the narratives.
Most of the songs are written in first person point of view, while the stories are written in limited third person, revealing the inner thoughts of an animal. Combined they provide a novel take on their subject matter, with the animals unknowingly offering poignant commentary on the human condition. One song, “Inner Space,” is about a woman visiting her father as he lies on his deathbed. The accompanying story is of a mouse who is excited to see the woman because she often drops bits of food on the floor. We’re reminded that, while the death of a loved one is profoundly sad, there is a lot to be said for celebrating life and the many moments of joy it can provide.
There is a lot going on with this album. The interaction between song lyric and story has been drawing most of my attention, so much so that when I stop to focus on the music I am especially impressed. A press release claims the rhythm tracks are based on the mating sounds of cicadas and frogs; I don’t know whether or not that is true, but there is a lot to unpack here. I normally describe Residents music as “complex minimalism,” meaning that it is composed of very simple elements that are then layered atop one another, forming a new type of cacophony: one from which you can clearly discern the individual parts. But Animal Lover, at times, is more advanced. I can’t precisely place my finger on it, but there’s definitely a maturity that is on display more prominently than it has been in the past.
One improvement I can recognize is their use of voices, which is the strongest of their career. The Residents have employed many different singers in the past decade, but while they were all meant to be part of an amorphous collective, the result has always felt like “The Residents with special guests,” rather than an ever-expanding lineup of a singular musical entity.
With Animal Lover they have as many guest vocalists as ever, but for the first time it feels like one cohesive unit. Oddly, it puts me in mind of “Old Brown Shoe” by The Beatles. There’s a moment at the end when the entire group sings a line, and either through accidental distortion or purposeful production work, it sounds completely different from any other Beatles song. In fact, it is my favorite song of theirs because of that strange moment when you wonder if another band has entered the studio.
The Residents of course have not been replaced by another band. They’ve just finally gotten comfortable and come into their own, as far as what constitutes the group at this time. That definition has changed before, and it will change again. They are always either moving toward or away from another incarnation, but for a few moments they are that incarnation totally, completely, and without reservation.
Animal Lover is one of those rare moments of perfect alignment.