The previous Residents album has been retroactively assigned to part three of a larger project called Cube-E: The History Of American Music In Three E-Z Pieces (an act mirroring how they introduced their Mole Trilogy). Though Cube-E is packaged as a neat discrete piece, it is really the capstone of a much larger project about the intersection of music and culture that The Residents have taken an entire decade to explore. It began with the music and culture of the Inuit, then a commentary on pop music, then an exploration of two fictional cultures and their respective musical output. After that they turned their gaze to American composers, and most recently gave us a pair of albums that tell dissimilar but related stories about how fame – an intersection of culture and music – affects those who seek it. During these ten years they have also been adapting and evolving their own musical palette, often bouncing back and forth between clean meticulousness and deliberate imprecision, with this performance combining what is obviously computer-controlled music with an element of random chaos. Having spent this time researching the field, they now present their thesis statement, conveniently divided into three sections.
The first two parts offer some interesting comparisons. “Buckaroo Blues” focuses on the American frontier – people who chose to live and die in an unexplored, dangerous land. “Black Barry” focuses on slaves – people who also lived and died in a land both unfamiliar and dangerous, though this time against their will. “Buckaroo Blues” consists of stories of regret for past misdeeds, and ends with a naive declaration of wishing to be a cowboy (conveniently ignoring the reality just presented and focusing solely on the romantic images of horse riding and wearing silver spurs). “Black Barry” has one tale of past misfortune, but it ends with the reveal that the story is taking place today, right now. For the most part, “Black Barry” is concerned with the present and the uncertain future – not surprising for a group who has all but had their history stripped away; they don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past like cowboys do, but instead need to rediscover or rebuild it before being in a position of stability. The music of the former has the exactitude the latter lacks, but for my money “Black Barry” is far more interesting to listen to.
Which brings us to part three, “The Baby King,” which is slightly altered from the studio album. Now the story is being told by a retired Elvis impersonator, the safest way to live the Elvis life. When you are on stage, you get to be on the frontier of rock and roll. You receive all of the fan adoration. This comes prepackaged from the work and sacrifice of others before you. They had a rough time of it, but that’s all in the past; you get to be the naive cowboy who just wants to ride a horse and wear silver spurs. The real Elvis was a slave to addiction. He was controlled by Colonel Parker and the Memphis Mafia. He didn’t have the freedom one would understandably assume given the level of his success. The Residents have turned their focus to this well-documented but under-represented aspect of the Elvis story. In their view, he embodies the cowboy/slave dichotomy that arises from the commoditization of culture. The public wants something interesting, new and exotic, but at the same time needs it to be packaged in such a way that it is easily consumed. But homogenized packages become commonplace, even boring, so any new package will be welcomed. In the case of Elvis, the British Invasion package came and took away his market share. And that package was replaced with singer-songwriters, then disco, then new wave. Cube-E is not just the story of Elvis. It’s the story of us, and how we as a culture constantly look for something new, even if it’s just a repackaging of an old pair of blue suede shoes.