Not Available is the album The Residents have been teasing for years. They said they’d release it only after they forgot it existed, but as far as I can tell they never stopped talking about it. Perhaps their definition of “forget” differs from mine. It’s actually their second album, recorded between Meet The Residents and The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, and that’s why I’ve hoped it never gets released. Those albums are immature, and do more to shock than to impress. Fingerprince is where they first glimpsed what they should be doing, and their last two releases have shown promise of things to come. So why take the time now to revisit the past?
Because it’s incredible, that’s why.
I am absolutely floored by this album. It is melancholy and beautiful, and there is no reason to have hidden it away. The music is alien but inviting. It feels like returning to the womb, in that there is something very natural in its strangeness. Sounds and voices blend in wholly unexpected yet perfectly obvious ways. This is truly a masterwork. I can’t believe that The Residents had this album on one shelf and The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll on the other, and they chose to suppress the former and release the latter.
But I must believe it, because that is what happened. So all I can do is speculate why. The most realistic reason is that this album is too revealing. Although there are no specific details that could identify anyone, this album feels deeply personal. It is reenacting somebody’s personal anguish, though in a coded fashion.
The story – at least what I can make of it – tells of a young couple who feels their love is pure and special, but as time goes on difficulties arise in the form of questioning just how unique their situation is. The boy is making these realizations, the girl believes he is rejecting her and in defense she rejects him first. Her belief is understandable to us, the mature objective listener, but the boy is thrown into sadness and despair. Though presented as an ensemble piece, the story is clearly from his point of view (we don’t hear from the girl beyond Part One), and we follow his confusion and anguish, his failed attempts to fix the situation, and his eventual realization that this “one true love” was really just an early, intense infatuation. While his feelings were true, their intensity was an unfortunate side effect of being young and discovering physical passion before the mind matures to comprehend it.
Basically the exact same “unique” story that everyone experiences. The artwork is aware of this: the figure, beautifully rendered in three-dimensional shading, is, indeed, a simple line drawing. Content-wise nothing is new, and told in a straightforward manner it would be incredibly dull. But the almost impenetrable wall of inside jokes and personal references (the Porcupine, Catbird, and Enigmatic Foe clearly have meaning for the author) keeps the audience from dismissing the album entirely as the pathetic whining of some rock and roll star. But at the same time the lyrics are not so dense that they devolve into bad surrealism – the audience can extract meaning, and identify with portions of it.
It may be that I am entirely wrong with my understanding of the story, and am only projecting my own first experience of “one true love” coming out of high school and into college – but that is precisely what any great story is supposed to do. I tell my students this whenever I can: to make your stories universally appealing, do not make your details vague, but rather use very specific details that just hint at ambiguity. It’s an easy concept to understand, more difficult to master, and The Residents have done it. Not Available tells my story. It tells your story. We’re both thrilled to hear it. Interestingly, only the person who wrote it – who actually lived this particular series of events – will find it boring.