Before approaching a new album by the Residents, the first question that needs to be asked is, “What’s the gimmick?” After all, in this mysterious (yes, they’re still wearing the eyeball masks) Bay Area collective’s thirty-plus years of existence, they’ve released a staggering number of concept albums. From the deconstructed oldies covers of Third Reich and Roll in 1976, to the forty one-minute jingles on the Commercial Album in 1980, to the Mole Trilogy, three albums detailing an epic battle between two warring tribes of moles, the Residents’ catalogue is united conceptually only in its unrelenting high-art weirdness (and, of course, the eyeball masks).
Animal Lover, the Residents’ first for Mute, deals with the theme of (no surprise here) animal love. The Residents seek to explore the relationship between humans, who attempt to deny and repress their animal instincts out of misguided notions of superiority, and creatures, which are blissfully free of such self-consciousness. The tales on Animal Lover are often told from the animals’ perspective, when they are forced to confront humans and their delusions of grandeur.
The cherry on top of this mountain of ridiculousness is that the rhythm tracks are primarily inspired by the mating noises of insects and frogs, with mating sounds of whales and humans used for longer tonal passages. Luckily, those tracks are subtly worked into the songs — they’re often barely detectable unless you’re an entomologist or some sort of insect-sex fetishist, or both. This is to the Residents credit: they obviously put the songs first and their gimmick second.
Animal Lover sounds like the Residents you’ve come to know and love (or perhaps “tolerate”). All the signifiers are there: nasal space-alien vocals delivered like nursery rhymes from hell’s cosmos, creepily atonal musical passages, off-putting sound effects, and deconstructed genre exercises all merge together to signify that no matter what the gimmick, the Residents are going to sound like the Residents and no one else. Few bands have had the vision and originality to sound as defiantly unique.
Whether it is an enjoyable listen can be another matter. Opener “On the Way (to Oklahoma),” a demented poem about a man’s transformation into a cat and his subsequent travels and trials, starts Animal Lover off on the right foot (or paw, as it were). It’s followed by the eerie, darkly sexual “Olive and Gray” and the ghostly lament “What Have My Chickens Done Now?” But over Animal Lovers’ fifteen tracks, this unrelenting parade of weirdness starts to wear thin. Songs that would be head-scratching attention-grabbers within an isolated context (such as “Inner Space” or “Elmer’s Song”) become lost in the crowd of macabre lullabies and outer space hymnals. In short, the Residents’ admirably singular vision ends up working against them.
Still, there is plenty here to recommend, for both longtime Residents fans and those looking to make a dent into their intimidating discography. In small doses, Animal Lover acts as the perfect antidote to a musical landscape often cluttered by acts too timid to truly challenge their audiences. That’s something the Residents will continue to do, until their giant eyeballs close for the final time.