The cover art for The Tunes Of Two Cities is similar to Mark Of The Mole. Indeed, this is intentional, for the back cover copy states that this album is part two of a trilogy. Part one of course did not know it was a trilogy, but has been retroactively placed into one (much like how the standalone movie Star Wars now has a second installment and a third is said to be coming). With the title of this album I was expecting an attempt at retelling Dickens, but the Residents have eschewed straightforward storytelling altogether with this (mostly) instrumental album. The conceit here is that two cultures clashed in the first part of the trilogy, and now we are taking a step back to examine each of those cultures through the music they produce.
It’s a common enough format to tell a story (follow a character to a crisis, have a flashback to explain how it began, then return to the crisis point and head for resolution), but to follow both sides of the origin is fairly untrodden territory, and to do so with only character evidence even more so. This album intends to give equal time to both cultures, and does so by alternating the selections, so that by the end they are seen more or less as equals. This means that when we return to the crisis point, we may be uncertain who’s in the right.
There are the hole-workers who left their homeland. Their side of the story is told in the first album, and they are represented by the rougher-sounding tracks that feature complex tribal-like rhythms. The other culture sounds like extended versions of songs from The Commercial Album. We’ve not heard their story, but we have their light, friendly, inviting music. I predict that, in lieu of finishing the story, the third album will tell the same story we’ve heard, but from the other point of view. It will be a demonstration of order bias. The three albums can be listened to in order forwards or backwards, and that order should affect which culture the listener sides with.
If they wanted to conduct this experiment correctly, of course, they’d release all three albums at the same time. Since that didn’t happen, a further bias is given to the hole-workers due to the familiarity of their take on the story. However there is something to be said for having the most recent telling being foremost in one’s mind.
But on to the music itself. I described this album as mostly instrumental, but voices are used throughout the hole-worker tracks, though they are buried deep within the music. And when they can be heard they are wordless sounds. Apart from a voice-like “la” sound in one selection, the other songs are entirely instrumental save for the very last, which has clear vocals that proclaim “people must be left alone unless they have a happy home.” It’s a strange way to order the words, and lends to two interpretations. The first is to join people who are happy (inversely, that we should not disturb unhappy people). The second, more sinister interpretation is to bother happy people, which is arguably what the Residents’ music has been doing for years.
There’s another difference I sometimes find between the two cultures, though it doesn’t hold up 100% of the time. The hole-worker songs focus on percussion over melodic instruments. This is clear in the composition and performance, but also in the production. Drum sounds are generally mixed in the center, and melodic sounds are placed to the right or left. The opposite is (generally) true of the other tracks. Each culture holds one aspect of music in high esteem, and pushes what the other culture loves to the side. I understand there’s a way to combine stereo recordings into mono that essentially eliminates whatever is in the center; were that done with this album, I wonder if the two cultures would realize how similar they really are.