Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses is closer to a traditional retrospective than one expects from The Residents. It provides an overview of their entire career, using the actual recordings, even if in “concentrate” form. But the concentrates indicate much effort went into this package, more than with most compilations; somebody loved this project, fed and nurtured it.
Interestingly, the first two discs (Album History) are presented in reverse chronological order. There are several reasons they may have chosen to do this. The simplest is just to be different; most compilations either flow chronologically or create a new sequence for the selections. Another reason might be that they are most proud of their recent work and wish to showcase it. But I think somebody’s read Kierkegaard, in particular his comment about life being understood only in reverse. But he also believed that life cannot be understood at any given moment, thanks to time’s stubborn insistence to continue on. “Twenty-five years of still being there,” reads one of the disc cases, hinting at some degree of weariness. “An overly long era of pestilence and plague,” confirms another.
Some albums are not represented by a concentrate, however, but by the typical selection of songs. For Our Finest Flowers it makes practical sense – a concentrate would be overkill, amusing though it may be. For The Commercial Album the concept would be lost in the editing room, unless the concentrate were limited to one minute, which just wouldn’t work. But I can’t explain Duck Stab in this way. Maybe the concentrates are only for albums that tell a story, but then I wonder what the story is for Meet The Residents or Fingerprince. The real reason is likely uninteresting, like whoever was curating this collection ran out of time. Still, even though I know better, I sometimes try to find meaning behind this group’s doings. It’s part of the fun.
The third disc is Singles History, mostly cover versions of course. There are two oddities, though, in the form of unreleased songs the liner notes describe as bonus tracks. And that’s a nice treat, though I don’t understand the inclusion of “The Gingerbread Man” when it seems like a concentrate of the concentrate from the first disc.
That brings me to the fourth disc, History Mystery, undoubtedly the crown jewel of the set, with its bounty of unreleased pieces. Here is where the liner notes become most interesting, hinting at small scale projects and even abandoned ideas. From them we learn that The Residents often have more ideas than time, and do look upon their work as a series of bricks with which they can build larger structures. At any time a motif or even a complete song on an album may have originally been intended for an entirely unrelated project.
And so it brings me a bit of sadness to read about my favorite part of this collection, which is the tracks from The Teds, a performance/film project that is not going to see the light of day, nor is it going to be restructured into something new. The existing tracks have been released, and that pathway has been closed off. A real shame, too, because these songs grab me in the same way God In Three Persons and Not Available grab me, which is no surprise given the similarity I feel in them yet am unable to define in words. But I’m also given hope that there are other great ideas in various states of progress just waiting to be completed.
The climax of the set, “Hallowed By Thy Ween,” comes from one of their demos. Upon hearing it, I completely understand why it didn’t win them a contract. It lacks unity, even when compared to their earliest releases. It holds a certain historical value and belongs in this set, but I can’t see myself listening to it very often. And that’s okay; I don’t need to like everything this group does. Surely, that way lies madness.