"Ehteen years ago, the Minutemen posed a certain unforgettable question to their listeners. “Do you want New Wave or do you want the truth?” they asked us, and even if the first signifier is no longer as potent in inspiring disgust as it once was – given that today’s music, chart-pop and indie, proliferates with New Wave nostalgia – and even if its signpost has yellowed a bit with age, if our vinyl copies of Double Nickels on the Dime (remember, only the double LP has the “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” cover, before you jump down my throat on this one, and no, I don’t own it either) have since harvested their share of crackle and skip, I think this question is as relevant today as ever. Fans of adventurous music make a difficult choice, the same one the early punks made when choosing, in terms of appearance and action, to separate themselves from society and risk ridicule – well, far more than ridicule. I’m sure if you’re reading this, someone’s probably yelled something vague about being a fag at you for the way you dress or because you sucked at gym, but as books like Our Band Could Be Your Life and the typo-ridden, fanatical, weirdly compelling American Hardcore make clear, punks – the one thing street gangs, cops, and fratboys all could agree they hated – got handed beatdowns more often than not in ‘81.
So we can choose what we listen to and what we look like, it’s our decision whether to try to make ourselves acceptable to the people who most likely hate us, to watch bad TV so we have something to discuss over the water cooler, or to go elsewhere. Elsewhere is a lonely place. But I like to think this choice is a rewarding one; I’m not here to pontificate about how all mass cultural product equals grotesquely sexualized, rage-glamorizing offal, and that its purported alternative is often little more than a highbrow or subculture-cachet version of same, but let’s just say that Pere Ubu are the truth and forge ahead.
Of course, the truth – the genuine article, not the instrument of power that Foucault railed against – can be difficult to understand. No more cryptic, disjointed, and unpleasant an album could rightly be called a classic, unless we speak of the perverse fascination we reserve for outsider music. And this could be outsider music in a sense, only created by a band entirely aware of what they’re doing yet seemingly driven to do so. Listen to “Navvy” and you get a bright, almost cheery guitar figure that quickly finds itself in knots beneath squawks of blocky keyboard, and a rhythm that keeps falling to shreds, usually while another vocalist besides the inimitable Dave Thomas (who seems lost amidst the chaos in the childlike idyll of discovering that he’s “got these arms and legs that flip-flop, flip flip-flop”) informs us, “Boy, that sounds swell.” It’s a perverse mess, and a great lead-in to what follows. The surrealistic call-and-response game that propels “On The Surface” – which features the signature Ubu elements of a pulsing bassline, watery, happy-or-on-some-other-plane melody, and found-sound marginalia – presents us with what we’ve come to expect, but seems to end suddenly, giving way to the somewhat troubled title track. Thomas seems to be huddled in the corner of the darkened room he wrecked on the last album’s “Sentimental Journey,” lyrically concerned this time with the humanist Babel of frustrated tenants in a breathing building not without its own torments, its instrumental section, ushered in by an eloquent saxophone and featuring a similar restraint in its guitar-and-piano jumble, is a true highlight.
“Caligari’s Mirror” offers drama and grime in some of Thomas’ most out-there, intoxicated wailing, as well as a thrilling, motley, full-band chorus that seems intent on waking the very neighbors mentioned in the last track. Some unaccompanied, seasick bass-and-guitar figures, which offer a premonition of the obsessive-compulsive album-closer “Codex” (a quick recap: Thomas thinks about a girl all the time, he hangs around his public library copying obituaries from the local papers and articles from the Wall Street Journal, surrounded by bags both paper and plastic, and he thinks about her all the time, all the time, all the time) lend more than a hint of unease to this beery sojourn, however, a grimness that continues in the (overlong) next track, which offers more of the same, plus some off-tempo percussion, sonic horror-film ephemera, fantastic, cartoonish, Ravenstine-supplied monster-chomping sounds, and, well, lord knows what else. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Thriller!” This could’ve easily been an alternate title for an album filled with such an excess of psychic turmoil, but then what would Michael Jackson have done? Besides go crazy, I mean.
“I Will Wait” clocks in at under two minutes, a hopeful slice of hopelessness that nevertheless manages to come across as the rather more affirmative cousin to The Modern Dance’s “Life Stinks,” with its full-band drumrolls replaced by an intense, unwieldy series of synthesizer-led buildups that allow the usually reined-in guitars to reach an approximation of previous Ubu efforts’ maximum volume before teleporting out in a cloud of twisted metal and asbestos. Suddenly, “Drinking Wine Spodyody” and “Ubu Dance Party” arrive in its stead, offering some of the album’s most indescribable moments; the former’s off-kilter near-funk (circling, maddeningly off-time keyboard figures manage to shift things nicely out of focus, as does a brief foray into bass-driven stomp that sounds like the Fall cross-bred with Uncle Meat-era Mothers of Invention) and the latter’s logic-defying and apocalyptic, well, dance-rock (listen to the atonal chorus that provides its finale and try not to think of a 1961 vocal group, only with woefully drug-corroded brains) manage to startle and confuse more often than not. If all punk sounded as anarchic as these two songs, all the media outrage might’ve been warranted.
Another meandering instrumental, “Blow Daddy-O,” with its methodical synth ululation, drum-machine provided click-track and too-painterly-to-be-written-off-as-simply-messy instrumental squall, recalls early Kraftwerk being harassed in an adjoining studio by Faust. Then it’s “Codex,” my pick for the most powerful, unromantic portrayal of mental instability that the band ever committed (no pun intended! Ha!) to tape: booming, slave-ship percussion and mordant chants give way to a minimal yet incredibly effective guitar line, joined again by the absent-just-long-enough-to-make-an-impact Thomas. “I think about you all the time,” he repeats over a haunting soundclash. “The day fades away and the night passes over / And I think about you all the time / I think about you all the time / Here come my shoes / Here comes me.” Does he sound disgusted with himself? Does he sound numb? Is there an ending to this story? Well, no, or at least, there is not one that we don’t have to supply on our own as the guitar lingers, caressing us.
Listening to this song, and of course this whole album, I often feel deliciously imcomplete. I want to play it again. I get obsessive. Maybe this is what “Codex” is about – Thomas could not be thinking about someone all the time but rather about his preoccupations with that someone (thinking about thinking about someone all the time!), or some form of meaning in his life of the sort that someone could or couldn’t provide, or rather about a nonexistent version of himself that possesses the meaning he seeks – and maybe, well, it isn’t. Pere Ubu excelled at sketching out the chasms within, the moments some of us find troubling and others relish in the same way they do the idea that their emotional shipwrecks, the idea that they’re far gone from ever living normal lives. In other words, if you like to lose yourself in art and its complexities, if you like your albums to verge on presenting you with meaning just before they diffuse into some waiting dark, this is the album for you; if you want the abstruse, puzzling truth, this is the album for you. I think it resonates with what Jorge Luis Borges refers to in his famously inconclusive essay “The Wall and the Books.” “Music,” he writes, “states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation that does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.”
This record has been blowing my mind lately. From those glorious uplifiting moments to those moments of sheer terror, this album has it all tied it up in a wonderfully weird and enjoyable package. It's all over the place so if that's your bag, reach on inside. Very highly recommended
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