Since their formation in the mid-1970s, The Residents have released a series of bizarre concept albums: an LP which purported to reconstruct indigenous Eskimo music, a Commerical Album consisting of forty one-minute-long tracks, their "American Composers" series paying tribute to disparate couplings (the first volume, George And James, being dedicated to the work of Messrs Gershwin and Brown respectively), and now Wormwood: Curious Stories From The Bible. They have conducted their long career without ever troubling the charts, and indeed without ever revealing their true identities. Possible line-up changes remain a mystery; their public faces, a couple of spokesmen for the so-called Cryptic Corporation, may or may not be band members. For The Residents make all their live appearances hidden behind full-head masks in the form of huge, single, bloodshot eyeballs surmounted by top hats.
And yet, like near-contemporary rock hoaxters such as Devo, The Residents may be having us on but they do not at all sell us short. The only UK performance of the live Wormwood show, at Kentish Town's Forum on Monday, was a sardonic, blackly hilarious joy. Relatively inexpensive design yields impressive effects: a textured backdrop which seems to shimmer and shift in changing coloured lights, a couple of vocalists – also disguised in long-beak-nosed, Pantalone-style half-masks – who wear black bodysuits with a succession of black-light-luminous costumes on top, and a verbal sensibility which, in terms of conveying complex ideas in almost ridiculously simple language, might even approach that of Stephen Sondheim.
The music itself is far from the noise terrorism I feared, apart from a generous dose of screeching, atonal guitar; indeed, its closest point of reference may be a more concise, disciplined form of '70s progressive rock. But where the likes of Yes and Genesis used to opt for lyrics of the "floats whispering through my cosmic underpants" variety, The Residents – as explained by their skull-masked MC – concentrate on "some of The Bible's more notable murderers, liars and penis manipulators". The original circumcision is recounted by Moses' wife Zipporah singing, "I took the edge of a rock/And sliced the skin from his cock"; Jeremiah declares, "They call me Mister Misery/They laugh and dump decay on me"; Jephthah's daughter, in a moment as genuinely moving as it is mordant, sings, "I'm gonna die with no tears in my eyes 'cause/God digs my daddy!" Cain's lament of "You didn't need me" is similarly touching. The epilogue is an appropriately scabrous rewrite of "Give Me That Old-Time Religion".
In its musical theatricality, its simple yet effective style of presentation, and above all in the underlying affection for its subject matter (as "Mr Skull" truthfully points out, "Our little stories are definitely not meant to be seen as Bible-bashing"), it reminds me of nothing so much as the recent success of Shockheaded Peter. I truly believe that, if Wormwood were given a similar theatrical run, it would gain almost as many plaudits – aided, of course, by the oxygen of publicity in the form of the misplaced outrage of the pious. But then, such exposure might mean that we would find out who the mysterious quartet really are...
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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