Since the release of Wormwood in 1998, the Residents have undertaken an unprecedented (for them) two international concert tours. They've also released a live album, a studio recording of the songs on that live album, an award-winning DVD (with a track of newly recorded reconfigurations of several old songs), a soundtrack album from that DVD, an instrumental single ("High Horses") and a few collections of rare songs and easy-listening favorites.
Now, marking the 30th anniversary of the release of their first record (1972's Santa Dog), the Residents have, for the first time in four years, returned to the studio to record a collection of new songs, Demons Dance Alone.
It's a well-worn fact that most bands who've survived this long (and there aren't that many of them) are perfectly content to take it easy. Tour a lot, play all the old songs, every few years release some new "greatest hits" collection. They know what their fans want, and know how to provide it. Everybody's happy.
The Residents are weird that way, though. (Well okay, they're weird in a lot of ways, but you know what I mean.) From those earliest, intentionally abrasive home four-track days, they've insisted on dramatically altering what they sound like, what they look like and how they do things. Songs have ranged from minute-long commercial jingles to hour-long epic tone poems. They experimented with new recording technologies and electronic instrumentation. They've used a number of different singers over the years. Each era?each album, almost?had its own distinctive sound and attitude and feel?while at the same time remaining unmistakably a Residents album.
All the same things can be said about Demons Dance Alone, too. It's unlike anything else they've ever done. Except here, instead of taking a step forward, it's almost as if they've taken a step back. Interesting thing is, though, they've taken a step back into a history that was not their own. That is to say, it's the first studio album in a long time in which they've stepped away from pure electronics and back into a more traditional band setup?guitar, drums, even some horns?together with the keyboards. Yet even with that traditional rock band format, the music itself often sounds at times like it was inspired by Burt Bachrach (as heard in "The Car Thief" or "My Brother Paul") or Leonard Cohen (especially in "Honey Bear").
I hesitate to call the album "mellow" or "accessible" or "radio-friendly" (as I'm sure other people will), but that's certainly what it sounds like?until you start listening to the lyrics and the structure of the songs. On the surface, they're sad, even heartbreaking, very traditional-sounding love (or rather lost-love) songs. But in this case, the people described in the songs are leading lives that are uniquely desperate, grim and odd.
My open end/Your only friend/Was always in the dark, the female vocalist sings in "The Car Thief," 'Til I took a shoe/That belonged to you/Then took a torch to your new car.
Characters in the songs pretend to fall down stairs, are attacked by swarms of bees or wish aloud that they were cows. Hospitalized children dream of being returned to abusive and broken families, while others have their fingers bitten by baby wolverines. Some work at the zoo, while others are unemployed policemen.
I was watching Ivanhoe, the lovely female voice again sings as "The Weatherman" begins, When they said the tornado/Blew your big ol' house apart/Robert Taylor was the star?
It's not just the stories that set this album apart. Though it's done subtly, the rhymes and melodies are surprisingly complex, the lines and the rhymes scattered and broken. And the songs are sung by the traditional Voice of the Residents, together with the female singer (who first appeared on Wormwood) and two children. In between songs there are whispers and sound effects (echoes of a tinny piano, crashing waves, various animal noises).
Though all these tracks can stand by themselves, Demons Dance Alone, as is the case with most Residents albums, has a story to tell, if a vague and elusive one. A story open to interpretation, put it that way. This one involves a lot of animals, both real and metaphorical?cows, dogs, bees, lions, wolverines and a mouse named Norman. We also learn from the whispered narration that the central story seems to revolve around "Tongue"?a man so named because his tongue "was so goddamn big he could clean his ears with it." Over the course of the album, he works his way through relationships with three women, all of whom mysteriously wither away and die after becoming involved with him?until he himself winds up broken, legless and destitute.
One theme that has appeared on several Residents albums appears once again here in a number of guises?the equation of love and need. Characters here need/love lots of things, but especially other people. It's stated most directly on a track called, simply enough, "Neediness"
I once made friends
With an other
And a rudder
A lover of my needs
We found the beauty
And the heartless
Arabesque of need
It's a bleak notion, but one that here becomes almost a thing of great beauty?these are songs filled with aching and loss and denial and unanswerable questions. Which, I guess, is something else that can be said about a number of their albums.
The thing is, there's no salvation to be found here, there are no happy endings. Tongue loses everything he had, as does most everyone else in these songs. The closing title track?an understated epic of despair and self-sabotage?says it all.
It's been said that much of Demons Dance Alone was written and composed in the wake of the September attacks, which could explain the album's decidedly somber tone. I'm not sure I buy that, though. It's too easy. Even if that is the case, there's much more to this album than that. The Residents' music has always had a distinctly dark edge, and they've dealt with a number of similar themes over and over again. And as has also always been the case, the despair is heavily laced with humor, and the tunes remain decidedly hummable.
Demons Dance Alone may not be as intentionally weird as, say, Not Available or Eskimo, and may not have the laser focus of God in Three Persons, but like those, it's a brilliant, multilayered portrait of human desperation and loneliness in all of its gorgeous, sometimes messy, hopeless glory. It's as close as the Residents have ever come to speaking a language most people can understand. There's just something very human about it. I keep saying that in different ways. Maybe not as human as that Bruce Springsteen keeps telling us his music is, but still. For a group of eyeball-headed alien creatures, they come pretty damn close.
I dunno, something about this record really got its hooks in me.