This album feels more like Eskimo Part Two than a continuation of The Residents’ more recent sound. The Commercial Album may have been a tangent, or failed experiment. Maybe people didn’t like the crisply-played and light-sounding melodies. It sounds like they damaged the synthesizer they used on the last album, and decided to record the new strange noises it now makes.
Which is not to say it is a bad sound. Every now and then this album delves in what I would describe as noise for the sake of noise, but for the most part the sounds are very interesting textures. And I mean “texture” in the fullest sense of the word – the music is more felt than heard, and a real joy to experience.
The album is divided into two parts, the first being the hole-workers facing the worst of nature, and the second part finds them facing the worst of man. The hole-workers are clearly miners, which initially led me to think this album is a commentary on England’s energy crisis, or to get closer to home, Cape Breton. But while those may be an influence, the lack of the eyeball-headed figures makes me think The Residents have hung up their political tophats for the time being.
An obvious parallel – and likely source material – is The Grapes Of Wrath. The basic structure of Mark Of The Mole follows the novel, but only superficially. What makes Steinbeck’s work so endearing is the personal anguish of the Joad family. The story touches us because we see it through their eyes and feel it with their hearts. The Residents tell a story of events (loss of home, migration, overflooded work force), but not of people. This may be an intentional decision, an attempt to make the tale seem more universal, but that approach always fails. Audience members relate to other individuals, not to groups. This album is filled with the pronoun “we,” as in “we are marching to the sea” and “why are we crying” and “we have left our homes.” The first use of a singular personal pronoun I found is from The Observer, a character we know nothing about, and may in fact be just that: an observer to the story, and not a participant. We get a few more, most notably from the machinist on side two, but we have no idea who he is other than a man who wants to build a new machine.
While the album has no shortage of dramatic events, there are no emotions assigned to any of the people. The Residents have completely stepped away from their otherwise effective character building. With Not Available I couldn’t quite make out the story, but I definitely knew and identified with the people within it. Here we have none of that. If emotion has been intentionally removed, then the characters are likened to robots, which reflects the second influence: the German silent film Metropolis.
I saw that movie once many years ago and didn’t like it, but The Residents have retold it in a mostly palatable fashion (I am not a fan of the noise that represents the climax of the Short War). For that reason I enjoy this side far more than their Steinbeck attempt, though both are equally strong from a musical standpoint. I wonder if this album could work as a soundtrack?
And, finally, the title: a mole is often considered a blemish, but when paired with “mark” we think of a beauty mark – something that elevates the beauty around it. Would Marilyn Monroe have attracted half of her fame without her mole? Perhaps we have The Residents pointing to unfortunate events to illustrate the fact that much of life is filled with joy, though we often fail to recognize it.
But it also brings to mind Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” and the insane desire to drive out all impurities, an exercise in tragic futility. The Residents’ take? After “Driving The Moles Away” this album ends with uncertainty: “Resolution?”