Nick Currie, who records as Momus, has spent much of his career treading some uncleansed middle ground between the irksome and the inspired. His popular blog and columns for the New York Times and Wired are full of thoughtful contemplation on pop, art and life. Occasionally it seems like his music is slipping into a miasmic haze, but this album, his first since 2006’s Ocky Milk, is another idiocratic entry in his lopsided canon.
Joemus is the result of a collaboration with Glaswegian breakcore maniac Joe Howe and is born out of files the two swapped over the Internet. When he plays it straight (which is rare), Momus feels out a few after-hours barroom textures. “Widow Twanky” is a great sad clown song, destined to be sung to three people in a threadbare smoke-clogged backroom. A similar feeling is engendered in closer “The Vaudevillian,” a capricious Robert Wyatt pastiche that manages to stagger from funny to sad within the space of Momus’ singular idiom.
“Mr. Proctor” plays like a musical scrap between the two collaborators; Howe impales the track with shattered beats and Momus attempts to drag it down into a deep-throated malaise. Momus is a pop singer at heart, although it’s sometimes difficult to hear it through the smog of ideas and divergent paths his music takes. A case in point: “Thatness and Thereness,” which would work a lot better without the tiresome discoloration of the vocoder, an instrument/effect that has become exasperatingly overused since Air (or whoever) revived it in the early ’90s.
But Joemus is an album of ever-shifting moods, and as soon as we’ve hit rock bottom we’re pulled up by our bootstraps, with Momus seemingly keen to leave us laughing and crying. “Ichabod Crane” is strident pop that dissolves into an electronic symphony that sounds like Howe let his instruments go into battle. “Dracula” is an amusing duet that sounds like an iChat tête-à-tête between the vampiric count and his nubile young prey.
Occasionally the collaboration between these two disparate workers doesn’t gel; “Goodiepal” and “Jahwise Hammer of the Babylon King” sound half-finished. But it’s gratifying to hear how often they hit paydirt. There’s even a slight return to Momus’ “Hairstyle of the Devil”-era ’80s pop sound on “Fade to White,” albeit a version of that song that was thrown into Howe’s blender and puréed into a clumpy and disjointed beast.
It all ends with the aforementioned curtain closer, “The Vaudevillian,” with Momus sounding like he’s fluffing his lines and then stumbling into the night, leaving his audience not knowing whether to applaud or call the emergency services. It’s a feeling that permeates Joemus, and although it’s unlikely to win him many new fans, it acts as a great précis of where Momus’s current musical fascinations lie.