Just Another Normal Deity (Wormwood)

Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-Four.The eyeball is back, and he is praying.  In reverence?  For forgiveness?  Is it mockery?  The pose seems sincere, but it’s impossible to read his (lack of) expression.  He is praying to a cloud, which is only a representation of God, and from the canvas texture we can tell that it is just a painting of that representation of God.  I’d say they are making a statement with the real Resident praying to a manufactured God… except for the fact that the Resident himself is a representation.

The album is called Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible. This being such a contentious subject area, I’ve opted to read the liner notes first in order to get a sense of what they intend.  The notes offer short synopses of the inspiring Bible verses, with a splash of sardonic commentary and the almost smug challenge of “look it up.”  The very first one caught my attention, stating “the Israelite God, YHWH, does not create the earth.  It already exists, though without form.”  I am not the most religious person, but I know the Bible clearly states at the beginning that God created Heaven and Earth.  However, I also know that there are debates about the accuracy of translations, so with some further research I discovered Young’s Literal Translation.  It is an attempt to translate without any agenda or poetry; it is (supposedly) just the words as they were written.  And while there remains room for interpretation, one possible conclusion from the opening sentences is exactly what these liner notes state.  So The Residents have become sort of armchair Biblical scholars, which is certainly unexpected but somehow not entirely surprising.

While the notes for the songs seem largely preoccupied with making snide comments, the short essay under the CD gives an uncharacteristically straightforward explanation of what The Residents are doing.  They are taking the Bible off of its sacred pillar and treating it as a human work.  While God is beyond criticism, humanity certainly is not.  Throughout history humans have offered varied and often contradictory interpretations of this material; now The Residents join that long tradition.

In silence I press play.  A lion roars – a reference to (or an actual recording of) the MGM lion, which is a statement all by itself.  MGM made Ben-Hur, arguably the most epic of all Bible epics, but it famously had no lion’s roar.  By reinstating the roar into their own Biblical epic, The Residents are letting us know right away that we are not playing by the normal rules of downplaying or removing elements just because we don’t think they fit.  In fact, the concept of Wormwood is that it focuses on those portions of the Bible that many choose to ignore.

Musically, they are changing again.  Portions of this sound much like their recent work (in particular Bad Day on the Midway), but there is a new energy and a direction I can’t quite pinpoint.  They haven’t made a turn so much as a course correction.  They are again joined by several guest vocalists, and here they really shine.  I think The Residents have gotten comfortable with writing specifically for their guests; I’ve gotten the sense in the past that they’ve often had material ready before finding the vocalist.

They’ve also taken a cue from their Gingerbread Man project by giving the characters precise thoughts and motivations, often not present in the source material.  Abraham is traditionally depicted as unquestioningly obeying God’s command to sacrifice his son.  The Residents have him cry out “but why does God want to kill children?” and frankly it’s more effective this way.  Who is the better role model?  A man who faces a terrible internal struggle but chooses to trust in his God, or a man who seemingly has no problem when told to commit murder?

I think they’ve done an excellent job of delivering on their concept.  If only they were immune to the human tradition of misinterpretation, this album might help some people.