The Residents are on fire. After Cube-E I expected their next album to be more of a placeholder, not unlike how the American Composers series followed their Mole Trilogy. While I liked those albums, they were clearly an easier project to knock out while they replenished their energies, eventually giving us the amazing God In Three Persons. That was followed by the lackluster King And Eye, which they were able to salvage into a part of Cube-E, but at the time it occupied the same space: something to keep the basic machinery running, but without any real innovation.
But with Freak Show, The Residents have found another unexplored yet profitable area right out of the gate. Combining their new computerized music production with the throwback atmosphere of a carnival sideshow seems like it couldn’t possibly work. But instead of listening to reason and turning their attention to something else, they opted to move forward with the experiment. The result is surprisingly good – so much so that I think even The Residents are astonished by the outcome. This is a group that is not afraid to try something different simply for its own sake, but even the most optimistic hope would have to fall short of how successful this album is. Whatever they sought to accomplish has been met, and exceeded. It’s no Abbey Road, I’ll admit, but why would it be? That album already exists, leaving no need to create it. This album is a back alley, and no less interesting.
The cover art, a brilliant recreation of the sideshow posters I remember from many years ago, triggers some uneasy memories. I always felt the sideshow was exploitative, but I admit my curiosity got the better of me on more than one occasion. (How could one possibly resist the temptation?) The barker always promised more than what was actually inside, but that could be said for every aspect of the carnival, and advertising in general. I never felt ripped off by the sideshow, but by my own participation. At some point I’d realize I was paying to gawk at a person’s physical deformity, and I’d feel more uncomfortable with myself than with the astonishing sight on display.
The Residents have captured this feeling perfectly. This album aligns so well with my personal experience that it can’t be mere coincidence. No, rather than having what I’ve always felt was a unique view on sideshows, it must be a universal experience. I’ve only thought it was personal because I did not discuss it with anyone, obviously due to a sense of shame. I expect while brainstorming this album The Residents had a similar revelation, and it is that more than anything else that drove them to complete it, and what will drive its undoubted success with the public. Freak Show will resonate with everyone who hears it, because the freak show sells admission not just to the tent, but also to ourselves. This could, ironically, be the album that brings The Residents into the spotlight of the mainstream.
In the world of music, The Residents themselves are a sideshow. They are not the sugary delights or thrilling rides that appease the crowds en masse, but they do catch the interest of the truly curious. For some they are the destination, with cotton candy being endured until the real show begins. With this album The Residents are at once celebrating and lamenting their position. If we look at the attractions presented on this album as metaphors for the band, we see a mixture of self-pity and self-confidence. Fortunately the latter wins out, giving an overall positive tone to the proceedings. Even when the tables are turned with “Lillie,” in which the audience becomes the freak show, it is not a finger pointing moment. Instead of declaring “you are the freak,” the album is inclusive: “we are the freaks, and we accept you. One of us.” Now it is up to the public to reciprocate with the same open arms.