The Residents have launched a new project called ERA, in which they revisit and annotate past periods of their career. It is not unlike a museum exhibition, complete with exclusive t-shirts available in the gift shop. The first installment is suitably concerned with the time before they became known as The Residents, here named Pre-sidents to avoid confusion with their post-1974 incarnation.
This particular era holds a place of wonder for fans, because it is at the heart of the mystery that surrounds the group. Even when you accept that there are no individuals involved in the concept, there’s still a part that wonders “yes, but what about before the concept was formed? Who was there before it all started?”
That kind of thinking is flawed, of course. There is no beginning before the beginning. The Residents as an idea is constantly changing, yes, but The Residents as group of individuals emerged fully formed – that form being void or nothingness. Of course, the recent Talking Light show directly contradicts this notion. Now suddenly there is a sense of individual membership, and that is perhaps why they’ve begun this large retrospective project.
The first ERA celebrates a time before the Residents concept took hold. A more innocent time, perhaps, but definitely more naive. Who were these people who thought it would be a good idea to hide behind a collective mask? What’s the motive? To listen to these early recordings, one might think it’s a defense against negative feedback – the number one killer of creativity. These early songs are not good, and no sane person would fault them for wanting to keep the tracks unreleased. The ERA website says “Projects from pre-1974 are sketchy and largely personal. The Residents do not generally encourage the inspection of that time.”
But now they’ve been released and laid bare for inspection, so the story must have changed in some way. It can’t simply be they’ve listened again and thought “hey, this is pretty good after all.” That certainly happens to many artists, but I don’t think that is the case this time. First of all, they probably would have released them during the 25th anniversary celebration when they reviewed these recordings looking for suitable material. Secondly, and most importantly: ugh. They sound awful. If anything good was seen in these songs, they’d have been re-recorded and released as new.
No, I think the revelation of identities has unearthed hitherto unseen ego. Now that there’s a name behind the music, that name wants to show improvement. “Look how much better I am now,” they seem to say. This wasn’t possible without identities; any drastically different sound would be attributed to the fluid nature of membership. “That sounds bad? Must have been someone else who made it.” But now the narrative says it’s always been the same people involved, so a new critical lens must be applied.
And the lens starts at the new beginning. Think of it as a prequel, where we learn what motivated our favorite character to become the hero we love. Of course, as with all prequels, the inherent problem is that the story doesn’t get interesting until later. It functions best as historical footnote.
I suppose it’s really a reboot. Start over, and repaint the canvases in a slightly different way, this time with the foreknowledge of what is to come. It will allow them to smooth over bumps by making them expected turns. So while I’m not especially thrilled with this first installment, I am eagerly awaiting future ERA exhibitions. I don’t think it will necessarily mean loads of unreleased demos from their entire career – most likely the ERA concept is just a compilation with an accompanying narrative; it just so happens that the first era mostly consists of unreleased material. But there’s plenty of behind the scenes information – historical or newly envisioned – that we’ve yet to see. The Residents have always been great storytellers, and now they are turning that talent towards their own tale.