I had heard of, but never read, E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Der Sandman,” so the latest Residents album, The Voice of Midnight, provided the perfect opportunity to explore the story. Usually an adaptation is criticized as being unfaithful to the source material, and the opinions get harsher the more familiar and comfortable the reviewer is with the original. I consider myself lucky that both are new to me, minimizing my attachment to either. When I get this opportunity, I normally like to start with the remake. Psychologically there’s a bias towards the original, and upsetting the order seems to help. But this time I chose to read the original story and identify what I think is most important before seeing where The Residents took it. I’m treating it as an informal kind of personality or compatibility test.
As I read the story, I think it is about a man who can’t accept having an intelligent woman as a partner. The main thrust of the narrative is the infatuation with Olympia, who is introduced immediately after Nathanael registers surprise that Clara can reason. He assumes Olympia to be mentally deficient (the word he uses is “half-witted”). Clara is the smartest, most dynamic character in the story, and yet she is rejected for someone who will patiently listen and not disagree, which leads to Nathanael’s downfall. Other themes are at play, of course, most notably the struggle between reality and fantasy, but this proto-feminism I feel is the strongest aspect. If I were to adapt this story, I would focus on that and downplay some of the problematic elements (such as Nathanael and Clara essentially being adoptive siblings, making their relationship uncomfortable by today’s standards).
The Residents find another aspect of the tale to focus on and present it in a thematically consistent way – they chose to spotlight insanity as seen from the inside. They’ve even removed the explanation of who Nate’s childhood Sandman really was, which compromises the theme of dual reality – the situation is clear in the original, while with the album we only know that we’re being presented with a distorted view. Plot-wise this isn’t critical, but it does drop what is otherwise a fine echo of the motif. I imagine it came out of the need to change how Olympia is perceived by other men in the story. It doesn’t make sense for her to deceive everyone based on how she is described. Hoffman’s society didn’t have the concept of the uncanny valley, and while the story should be considered metaphorical, that part is just too far fetched. And The Residents get credit for showcasing how Nate’s mental state is affected by whether he is in light or cast in shadow.
So my informal compatibility test reveals my mind views the world differently from The Residents. Well, that hardly seems surprising. If we agreed on everything I would have lost interest years ago. I like both interpretations equally well. Adaptations and remakes should make big changes – otherwise why bother at all? I do think some of the dialogue in the new version could be improved. Indeed, I have a strong urge to mark up the CD booklet with my red pencil.
Otherwise I do really enjoy this album. I most love the prominent use of different actors. The Voice of Midnight is more in line with the group’s trajectory over the past several years than Tweedles was. I feel their plans now are to expand the public image of what “The Residents” means. We’ve seen “The Residents present…” on the past few releases, and I think the intention is to open up the concept to more than just the core group. The lead singer is the most easily recognized participant, and his minimized role here might be an indication that he’s preparing to move into more of a supervisory role. It could be complete retirement, or it could just be that his doctor recommended he not scream so much. Perhaps we’ll find out in the morning.