Sweeter Than Cake (Gingerbread Man)

'C' is for concept album, that's good enough for me.The Residents have released a followup CD-ROM to Freak Show called Gingerbread Man.  It is in a format called an “expanded album” and it works both in a CD player and a computer.  The two are inseparable; this time around the complete experience has been packaged in a single release instead of being split over several years and formats.

The visuals are gorgeous; unsettling yet inviting.  It is leaps and bounds ahead of their first venture, and it’s hard to believe that what is possible has changed so much in less than a year.  It’s entirely new but perfectly captures the aesthetic of The Residents, and I’d be hard-pressed to find another act that’s been around for twenty years that can be so well represented by this new medium.  It helps that The Residents themselves constantly change, usually through adoption of the latest technologies.

In one sense, Gingerbread Man is even more open-ended than Freak Show.  There are no rooms or passages  to explore, which initially makes it feel limited.  But with Freak Show your interaction is limited to four options: turn left, turn right, move forward, or click on an object.  Here, nearly every key press results in something happening on screen.  The colors change, pictures appear, voices speak, and (most interestingly) the thoughts of each character float into view.  Instead of exploring a world filled with the physical evidence of someone having been there, here we are presented with their innermost thoughts and fears.  We know these people exist not because of what they have left behind, but because of how they think.  It’s psychoanalysis presented as entertainment, which can potentially lead to realms more vast than any “virtual reality” could possibly provide.

That said, the format of each character’s video is the same.  Eventually you get a feel for how the buttons work and fall into a groove.  This is not so much a game as it is a toy that complements the music.  While it is integral to the project, it’s playability decreases significantly the more you use it.  In the long run, it’s really nothing more than a novel presentation of liner notes and jacket photos – something you’ll pore over immediately and only revisit a few times afterwards.  This does not make it a bad thing, but it does mean that as time goes on I’ll more than likely listen to the album in isolation from the presentation.

To be fair, the repetitious format could be a limitation of the computer program, but as far as the music is concerned it must be a deliberate choice.  With the motif of the Gingerbread Man theme being worked into each of the songs, the album feels like a continuation of what the group did with Our Finest Flowers.  For that album, they appropriated musical ideas from throughout their career to feed into new compositions.  Here the concept is limited to this single album, a much more difficult feat to pull off, and at times it does feel like the music suffers from that challenge.  Despite this, some of the melodies are among the finest I’ve heard from The Residents, and they stick in my mind well after the music has stopped.

And furthermore, with the similar structures of the songs and the videos, a statement is being made along the lines of “despite all of our differences, essentially we are built of the same material; we just rearrange and mold it to our particular tastes.”  And by giving us control over the presentation, we come to realize that we can forge our own paths, and that we should be mindful of how we may influence others.

I can see this becoming a series.  Once a year another volume of Gingerbread Man is released (or perhaps “baked” is a better term), giving us insight into another nine personalities.  As a template (“cookie cutter?”) it could go on forever.  Or at least until The Residents get interested in something else and run with that concept.