The most surprising aspect of the new Residents album is that it does not contain a cover version of “Woman In Love.”
I expected as much when I saw that Barbra Streisand graces the sleeve.
But I have been hearing that song far too much lately, so I can’t honestly say I am disappointed with the omission.
I imagine the original idea for this album was to repeat what had been done with The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, only this time focus on modern songs.
The artwork here is similar enough to bear out that theory, and perhaps was commissioned with that original concept in mind.
But somewhere along the way, possibly from fear of creative stagnation, the contents of the album changed dramatically.
The Residents decided to challenge themselves to write 40 different songs for their new album.
But did they meet the challenge?
There are 40 songs, yes, but many have a similar sound and at times it’s difficult to tell them apart.
40 songs, but not necessarily different from one another.
This could be the creative stagnation coming back, but I think it’s a deliberate choice.
Again the eyeball-headed figures are featured, so again we’re dealing with a commentary on our culture.
The Residents might be saying that all popular music sounds the same, but the evidence doesn’t support that.
Along with Miss Streisand the radio has been filled with Queen, Kenny Loggins, and DEVO, so there is definitely variation in the performers and music.
Instead, as demonstrated by the fact that this is a pressed record – an artifact that will remain unchanged – The Residents are lamenting that when a song hits the top of the charts, it tends to stay there a long while.
Every week we hear nearly the same top 40, with only minor changes from week to week.
And every time we play this record we will get exactly the same 40 songs.
The Residents would rather live in a world in which music is constantly changing.
Case in point: this new record bears a significant Gary Numan influence.
The previous one was disco.
Before that, it was wind.
The Residents certainly practice what they preach.
Despite this, the songs are not throwaways.
Many feel like seeds that could be grown into some truly wonderful full-length compositions.
But they have opted to leave what could be their best work unfinished.
Are we to gather from this a sense that popular music isn’t reaching its full potential?
Do too many songs leave the listener with thoughts such as “yes, that’s nice, but what happens next?”
According to The Residents, the answer is an unqualified “yes.”
Most of these songs are vignettes with themes that can be (and have been) explored in countless ways, distillations that remind the listener that much of popular music is about finding love, losing love, or remembering the past.
Some, such as “Ups And Downs,” seem like the eerie openings of stories that would easily find a place among the many Poe imitations.
But “Loss Of Innocence” stands out as a complete story.
It has a protagonist, an action, an emotional arc, and even a post-modernist lament.
While some of the other songs have a feeling of closure, this is the only one that is satisfying in terms of a piece of short-short fiction.
Its title should not be lost upon the listener; the only complete song in this entire collection of simple songs (indeed it is followed by “The Simple Song”) drives the point home that popular music is largely immature and only scratches the surface of the human condition.
But we mustn’t discount it entirely.
Popular music is, after all, popular, mostly because it is fun.
And The Commercial Album is fun, and though I’m sure it was difficult to write and record, the joy in creating it is quite evident.
The Residents are very pleased with this album.
It may or may not get them their 15 minutes of fame, but that is immaterial.
This is their eternal Top 40.