❉ Everyone Comes To The Freak Show: The Residents‘ new career-spanning box set.
“The trick to fully immersing oneself in The Residents’ world is to realise that they’re not creating monsters, however dark their narratives may sometimes get, but instead they’re involved in endless miniature character study.”
It’s forty-five years now since The Residents first issued their “alleged music” into the world, and yet it still seems like they’re only getting started. This is both the strength and the curse of remaining a cult affair after so very long; you’ll probably know the tuxedoed eyeballs, but maybe not the Cube-Es, or the Moles, or the Randy Bob & Chuck Trilogy, or the Bunny Boy. Or their dozens of other dramatis personae.
Their reputation is still coloured largely by their earlier projects, up to and including 1980’s Commercial Album, yet those are merely a fraction of their output, and furthermore were created before their real engagement with multimedia, their true forte to the point where it’s only in recent times that that the tech has caught up with their desired visions. To try and precis their career here would be futile – I could do a thousand words on just one of their albums, such are the depths and eddies within, but couldn’t fit their everything into such a small space; and quite apart from that, I’m as yet unfamiliar with many parts of their oeuvre, given how prolific they are and how multitudinous each work is within itself. I suspect The Residents themselves must struggle to remain fully abreast of it all.
With such a lifespan, the Residents’ vast catalogue can be a daunting prospect, although they have cultivated a habit of issuing anniversary compilations to aid entrypoint. 80 Aching Orphans is the latest such, marking not just a significant birthday but sounding the starting gun for the forthcoming “pREServed” archival reissue series, and unlike previous collections, isn’t immediately framed or even distorted by some conceptual quirk. Instead, what we have here is an apparently straight-up family favourites selection box, a confetti spray of Residential moments, although there “is” a theme (a perhaps surprising one, too) if you look closer, both at the box itself and their works as a whole.
The back-handed caricature impression of The Residents is of a merely bizarro outfit, revelling in bad faith and skronk, and while it’s true that the vicious carrion whirl of something like 1976’s Third Reich ‘n’ Roll is still a part of their arsenal, to write them off as simple scatalogical satirists is to do them a huge injustice. More accurate would be to say that they’re constantly drawn to the absurd and the grotesque – the grotesque as in thwarted romanticism – the peripheral vision and the corner-glances, and in this, they’re only continuing a lineage of American dramatic observation.
The trick to fully immersing oneself in The Residents’ world is to realise that they’re not creating monsters, however dark their narratives may sometimes get, but instead they’re involved in endless miniature character study. Take something like the deliberate confusion of devices of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy or the anxious parade of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio – perhaps, most pertinently, the meta-theatrical panoply of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – stand The Residents’ canon next to them, and the tradition becomes obvious. Although an arch post-vaudevillian attitude is maybe their signature pose, they’re not the harsh outliers of pop-cult myth; instead, a running mate to the relentless sideshow of their homeland. Testimonial rather than alienation; subversive, yes, but subversion of the carny barker and his ilk rather than the acts.
It’s salient, too, to remember that The Residents have never operated in actual isolation, for all their liminal presence and stubbornness. They were initially born from refusenik opposition during ‘Nam and Nixon and have never really deviated from that position, their solidarity with the marginalised as forgotten or demonised archetype a constant preoccupation.
If you doubt this proposal, I recommend their threnodious reaction to 9/11, Demons Dance Alone, where the mask truly drops for once. It’s always the human cost they’re depicting rather than the bare situation, the ache beautifully hinted at in the artwork for this box, which alternates between garishly colourful images from live Residents activity and upsetting, Arbus-like B/W imaginings of abandoned eyeball children, the rent between the two making a noise in the back of your mind which you can quite clearly sense in the music within.
Crucial too to their power has been their lifelong anonymity. If you care to do the legwork, you can identify at least some of the individuals who have been The Residents down the days, but that’s to spoil the game. The anonymity, which may have began as prank or gimmick, soon became the actual essence of The Residents. More than most artists, they actually “are” their songs and stories, there’s no personality cult distancing the audience from the action. What appears to be setting up walls and detachment is in fact doing the precise opposite. The sideshow & the archetype don’t just have have the individual in common, but at centre. Shadow is just the sunlight of the margins, & we’re all of us only one bad day away from there. As this box’s liner notes conclude: “We’re all Residents, after all. When will the world figure that out?” And there’s the theme.
This collection, then, is an essential both for newcomers and experts, a wave of the hand over their entirety which works both as simple greatest hits and forensic study – moveable feast or Plymouth Harvest, even – depending upon mood. What’s most notable is just how consistent their art has been, the distance between contingent tracks here sometimes decades in reality but zero in affect. So, too, their beneficence, however cloaked beneath the surface. “Ignorance of your culture is not considered cool”, they once said, over 40 years ago now, and the statement remains true. “Inquire within (sic)”, and always let your conscience be your guide.
❉ ‘The Residents: 80 Aching Orphans: 45 Years of the Residents’ is available now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £24.99.
❉ Further reading: http://www.residents.com/
❉ Click here to read We Are Cult‘s review of the Residents’ last album, The Ghost of Hope.