❉ Another welcome addition to The Residents pREServed series, with the customary mixture of revelations and obfuscations.
“(As) the freaks of the music industry, the Residents give real pathos and affection for their characters here… Because the Residents are seen as grotesques and they are singing about grotesques here, you expect a certain kind of black humour and yes, it’s there, but there’s a really weird level of love and affection that’s weaved in the off-kilter music and lyrics.”
If you’ve heard of the Residents you’ll probably know at least one thing about them: those eyeballs. Created as a combination of visual short hand and marketing tool, the eyeballs represent the collective’s most important contribution to music history: The Theory of Obscurity. Coined by the mysterious – and very probably fictional – musicologist and composer N Senada, the Theory of Obscurity states that an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration. In essence the freedom of anonymity gives the Residents an opportunity to be truly creative without worrying about what people think of them.
Like the Residents’ only real peer in dogged anonymity, Jandek, the Residents have seemed to become more comfortable about letting some elements of their history come out of late. This tends to date from the sad death of member of the Cryptic Corporation – ostensibly their management – Hardy Fox, who they now seem to be comfortable in crediting for much of the musical output of the Residents for the last five decades. The Ralph Records/Cherry Red reissues under the title The Residents pREServed are very much a continuation of this theme, with friend and collaborator Jim Knipfel and the suitably anonymous Archivist doing their best to place these records in some kind of historical context. These editions also provide some kind of musical context as well through early versions of music, live performances and other surprises culled from Hardy Fox’s considerable archive.
So, as someone already very familiar with Freak Show, this new edition already makes a very welcome addition to the series with the customary mixture of revelations and obfuscations expected from the sleeve notes and bonus tracks. The problem with reviewing Freak Show is that it is very much a product of the second itineration of the Residents, when half the Cryptic Corporation (and possibly half the original band members themselves) left after the disastrous Mole Tour. In an attempt to make their music easier to tour with (the Residents always have placed visual spectacle very highly in what they do and, like Devo, have described themselves as frustrated film makers) Freak Show is part of what fans call the Midi years. This is because the music is heavily synthesised rather than the outright weird experimentation of whatever was at hand that was the band’s trademark from The Warner Bros Album to the Mole Trilogy. Some people find half the fun of the first decade of the Residents was trying to decipher what they were doing, why they were doing it, who they were and what the hell they were playing. Like the aforementioned Jandek, some fans struggle with this slightly more direct approach by their favourite eyeball heads.
But although to some degree the album is more accessible than some of their earlier, denser, unsettling records, there’s still something uniquely disquieting about the Residents approach here. While other modern cabaret pop acts like the Tiger Lilies and Dresden Dolls are far too arch for me, the Residents manage to achieve a really strange atmosphere through real commitment to their project. As a band probably slightly fed up of being gawped at for their stage persona, they probably are as good a band as any to get under the skin of these outsiders and tell the stories of a group of exhibits at a classic old carnival freak show. The Singing Resident sounds as unsettling and strange as ever, but the use of female singers – not new for the band, as they’ve used them since the very beginning – works nicely together to tell these stories. They also lean into something about the sometimes rather clinical sound of midi instruments, so that inorganic and synthesised sound feels both unsettling and familiar at the same time. Which I assume is kind of the point.
I’ll level with you here. As a fan of music, I’m one of those people who really only notices lyrics many listens down the lines. I’ve always been far more interested initially in how the lyrics sound rather than what they mean. But Freak Show is one of those records that really requires close attention to the lyrics, because in essence the record is an opera. And it’s also only part of the wider story. At this point in the Residents’ career they were looking into innovations around multimedia, so much of the story of Freak Show is told in the animated CD-ROM (available as a DVD with the Mute reissue of a few years back) and in an attendant comic. I’ll discuss these two in a bit more detail at the end of the review, but the comic in particular – which has contributions from such like-minded souls as Charles Burns, Richard Sala, Dave McKean, Savage Pencil and a rare comic from the Residents own graphic art department – really adds layers to the stories being told here.
Because as the freaks of the music industry, the Residents give real pathos and affection for their characters here. There’s a line in the final song – Nobody Laughs When They Leave – which is very telling for how they see these people: “half a mouth may not be much but it’s still half a kiss”. Because the Residents are seen as grotesques and they are singing about grotesques here, you expect a certain kind of black humour and yes, it’s there, but there’s a really weird level of love and affection that’s weaved in the off-kilter music and lyrics. I almost teared up at a line in Jelly Jack the Boneless Boy, kind of the apex of the grotesqueries here (Jack basically lives in a bottle because of his bonelessness), which has the kind of unexpected beauty that I think the Residents are trying to achieve, where our hero laments his strange and powerless existence but then suddenly sings: “but as I see the end of evening turn into the night, the bird inside my brain becomes a light that is too bright”. And one thing the Residents never do is cheap irony. Very complex and obtuse and well-constructed irony? Yeah, sometimes. But at the heart of everything they do in their best work, the Residents are deliberately trying to communicate difficult things. And this is an album full of those difficult things.
One of the key songs on the album is Lillie. There’s a brilliant novel by experimental writer BS Johnson called House Mother Normal, which tells the messy stories of patients of an old peoples’ home and their various states of mental decay. And of course the most damaged and psychologically fragile person in the home is not a patient but the person who runs the home. And similarly Lillie is the most damaged person here and she is one of us, one of the crowd and one of the people gawping at the inhabitants of The Freak Show. The song describes her thusly: “Lillie with her white face. Delicate Lillie is stainlessly lonely and she is too white, like a face in a flashlight with teeth that might bite. She is too white, like dice rolling snake eyes in headlights at night. She is too white, like a corpse in the sunshine or eyes in a fight”. It’s not subtle but the point is well made. And that stands for the whole album really – a bit less subtle and more direct than the incredible first decade of records, but still one that has real power and wallop.
The packaging, as with all pREServed editions is sublime, although it’s a shame it doesn’t include some of the multimedia stuff that the Residents were pioneering at this time. If you have seen the documentary Theory of Obscurity (and if you haven’t you really should, it’s an excellent statement of artistic intent for the band) there’s some wonderful live footage of the live shows which, if I’m honest, work better visually than they do as a sound extra (although as a collector I’m certainly pleased they released these live performances).
The CD/DVD that Mute put out in 2006 included some live footage and some of the then pioneering (but now more than a little dated) CD ROM material that came out with the album. As these aren’t included here, I’m probably going to have to hold on to this edition to complete the story. Similarly it’s a shame the attendant comic book can’t be released in some way as it was with the original Euro Ralph special edition (although I imagine it would probably be prohibitively pricy to do that). But these are quibbles. Honestly, short of including the eyeballs themselves in future reissues (and the Residents have actually done this in their handful of insanely detailed and completist fridges), I can’t imagine there could be anything more authoritative and definitive than this series of reissues. I can’t wait for the next records.
❉ The Residents: Freak Show, 3CD pREServed Edition (Cherry Red Records NRT016) released 26 March 2021, RRP £12.99. Order now directly from Cherry Red Records.