When Pearl Harbor was hit I was a young boy. My natural feelings were confusion and fear. My unnatural feelings – the ones I was told to have – were anger and bloodlust. Everyone was expected to despise any friends or neighbors who originally came from Japan. We didn’t have any Japanese descendants in my school, so the Chinese kids would have to do. Racism back then was all-inclusive.
Now I’m an old man living in a modern, more accepting society. The attacks last year left everyone confused and fearful. But very quickly we were told to hate. In my town, a friendly, hard-working Pakistani gentleman found the windows of his small business smashed in and “terrist” [sic] spray painted on his walls, because he looked close enough. I’m sure somebody is happy that we’ve held on to the values from the good old days.
Music, the most popular medium through which we express our feelings, is not a whole lot better. While we’re not hearing songs of violent revenge, we’ve been inundated with overly patriotic messages that are just bland as entertainment. Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” is the only one with any substance or humanity in it, particularly when he sings “I hope that we’re forgiven” – otherwise it’s another call to arms.
But a few weeks ago The Residents released their latest, Demons Dance Alone, which embraces the true feelings so many want to hide away. It is divided into sections, the first being “Loss” and the second “Denial.” Obviously referencing the stages of grief, the group adroitly folds anger, bargaining and depression into “Three Metaphors,” on the one hand avoiding the popular rage and at the same time reinforcing the idea that we don’t have to treat those stages literally.
As for acceptance, that may be the hardest for many because, at least as I interpret it, The Residents are saying that which should be obvious but seldom is: demons dance alone. Demons are the ones who let base emotion overrule their thinking (made visually obvious by the image of the heart protruding from the demon’s brain). They are small in number, and it is not a worldwide conspiracy. Your neighbor is probably not a demon. But that sentiment is highly unpopular in this country; if he looks like he might be a demon, then you should assume he is and attack, just to be safe.
And that may be a reason that nearly all of the vocals on this album are subdued. More sung than spoken, but just barely so. Tentative voices, like they want to be heard but are either afraid of how they will be received or just respectful of the silence their message necessarily breaks. These are the vocals of caution, confusion, and worry.
Musically, The Residents are at their most approachable, which is another way of being subdued. It has the core musicality – the sonic fingerprints – of the group, but forgoes their usual topcoat of broad experimentation. But this is not an attempt to widen their fan base by changing their sound, nor is it laziness (it’s tempting to believe every Residents composition starts out completely “normal” and is run through various filters of oddity, but that’s just not the case). Just like the vocals, the music is deliberate in its low profile; it’s “in your face” by being the complete opposite.
Whether the controlling reason was time (The Residents wanted to capture a moment with purity) or expression (The Residents wanted to change up their sound enough that listeners simply had to take notice), the effect is the same: Demons Dance Alone is an album that is outside anything The Residents have ever done, but fits squarely within the experience of every person who has ever dealt with extreme loss.
In a country that every day becomes more chest-thumpingly jingoistic and overconfident, a simple message of what is at the heart of our national mindset – confusion, fear, and weakness – seems to be the boldest statement that can possibly be made.