Yearly Archives: 1998

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.

I Love The Monkey Man (Live At The Fillmore)

Look over there! It's Michael Jackson's lawyer!The Residents returned to the stage last year with a show called Disfigured Night.  They released an “official bootleg” video, but I wasn’t able to get a hold of one.  This album is also touted as an “official bootleg,” but it is of a later performance in San Francisco.  I don’t understand that phrase – it seems like an oxymoron.  Perhaps it was recorded on amateur equipment.  Or maybe there’s a legal issue with the inclusion of “We Are The World,” which I understand is one of the most heavily protected songs in terms of who is allowed to perform it.  I sometimes wonder about the relationship The Residents have with the rest of the music business world; it seems they get away with far more than they reasonably should.  I suppose they are small enough that nobody gives them notice, but I like to think that the heads of the entertainment industry respect them and let them do what they want.

But on to the album.  It is divided into two acts.  The first sees them giving live arrangements to selections from their CD-ROM titles.  Gingerbread Man is paired with “Jambalaya” and “44” for a section entitled “Louisiana.”  Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway are brought together under the banner of “Freaks.”  All of the selections carry the themes of loss, regret, and bitterness to varying degrees.

Musically we are reminded, as we almost always are when this group performs live, that there is a trace of a “normal” rock and roll band lurking inside The Residents.  At times I almost forget who I’m listening to, but then the lyrics bring me crashing back down to their version of reality.  Nowhere is this more prevalent that with the internal monologue sections of the Gingerbread Man songs.  On the original album these were rendered as a collage of voices, which was very effective in evoking the way thoughts pile up on each other.  But that works best on a recorded medium, one that is intended to be listened to again and again.  A live performance is a different beast, and the decision to pull those thoughts into the forefront was a wise one.

After a brief intermission (swapping the CDs), the second act begins.  This is the main attraction of the evening, Disfigured Night.  It is a mostly spoken piece, not unlike God In Three Persons in that respect, but there are no individual song titles here, emphasizing its singular nature.  The title is obviously a reference to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night – one of the earliest works of a man who has no doubt been an influence on The Residents.  The title aside, there is little that can be directly pointed to in the ways of similarity, or at least none that I can recognize.  Both pieces concern a changing relationship of two protagonists, but that’s common enough to not be worth considering.

The story woven here is expectedly atypical.  It concerns an empath who delights in the suffering of others, but by the end learns about himself and others, and ends with a rendition of “We Are The World,” the song written (and forever stuck in our brains) to bring awareness to famine in Africa.

The treatment of the song feels a bit mocking at times, particularly during the chorus, but the verses come off as honest and heartfelt – they dislike the pop catchiness but support the underlying message.  Given their unorthodox attitude towards music, it’s easy to forget they came out of the hippie culture of 1960s San Francisco.  But that’s only because the era was short lived, giving us very little to characterize it.  We remember the peace and love aspect, but often overlook its skeptical nature.  The hippie aesthetic also had a healthy distrust of conventional wisdom and authority – principles which took a life of their own in the punk movement – and The Residents are quite possibly the embodiment of what would have happened should flower power have continued on to this day.