The new Residents album is such a departure from what they’ve been doing recently that I have trouble placing it into a coherent narrative of the band. If the liner notes are to be believed, this album began life three years ago, making it the third album (or the fourth, if the liner notes of Not Available are to be believed). It feels like closer kin to Fingerprince than Duck Stab, and it’s almost as if we are presented with an alternative history: what if The Residents were more interested in the second side of Fingerprince than the first?
And not only are we getting an alternative version of The Residents, but they are also giving us an alternative version of Eskimo culture. I don’t have the knowledge to debunk all of the claims this album makes, but I know many are untrue and there are clues throughout that The Residents are making a joke. But the Eskimo are not the target, only the vehicle. The Residents are satirizing how Western culture views anything other than itself.
The Other is always seen as isolated and bizarre, and any similarity is purely accidental and must be marginalized. Forty words for snow is often touted as a strange quirk of the Eskimo, but there are two reasons to question that claim. First – and most damning – where’s this list of forty words? The articles I’ve read that cover this topic only manage to provide about a dozen examples. Second – and this drives the point home even without the list – we also describe many different types of snow in English. Snow, sleet, hail, blizzard, flurry, slush. And when we run out of distinct words we use modifiers to extend the language. Packing snow, blowing snow, Spring snow, snowdrift. That’s just off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are many more. It should not be surprising if an in-depth study finds there is a direct mapping of snow words between both languages, but unfortunately that would make The Other more like us, and we can’t have that, can we?
The Residents know this, and have turned a critical gaze towards our own xenophobia. Eskimo is not about The Other, it’s about us and our distorted worldview. This record is being distributed in the continental United States, and though it may find its way into an igloo, we are the intended audience. Nowhere is this more evident than at the conclusion of the album when the ceremonial chants (probably having been fabricated the whole time anyway) are replaced with jingles for toilet paper and soft drinks. With that in mind, it’s clear from the cover that The Residents are looking at us and reflecting what they see. They may be wearing “penguin suits” but they are too conspicuous to blend with their surroundings (especially as penguins are found in the southern hemisphere). They represent us and our insincere, lackadaisical attempt to understand other cultures. The elements of the image add up to a formal, cold, uncaring gaze. There is none of the warmth that should accompany an exploration of a group of fellow humans. We don’t see fellow humans; we see The Other.
That’s not to say that the album would not be insulting to an actual Eskimo person. But the insult takes the form of being yet another misrepresentation by ignorant Americans. In other words, it’s nothing new to them, and that says much about how we already treat our fellow man.
As for the stories printed inside, they ring of enough authenticity to at least be inspired by true legends. But though they may be true legends, they are not true stories. Another society’s mythology should not be mistaken for fact any more than our stories of a giant lumberjack and his blue ox should be presented as truth.
Of all the albums I’ve heard that criticize American culture, Eskimo (though subtler about it) is the most scathing, making it the most “punk” record I’ve yet heard.