December 30th, 2009


My noughties 6: bilateral, bipolar Joemus

We've had Folktronic in New York, Oskar in Tokyo, and the Berlin "googlepop" of Otto and Ocky. Now, as the decade chugs towards the buffers, let's cast a backward glance at the last Momus album of the decade: Joemus.

The record, sporting a homo-erotic Famicon sleeve by Stefan Sadler, appears in November 2008 but really starts in June 2006. Just back from my stint as the Unreliable Tour Guide at the Whitney in New York, I'm in London "showing" an artwork (actually just a series of texts whispered by the staff) at a gallery called Blow de la Barra. Maybe it's the presence of the Ziggy Stardust phonebox right outside the gallery on Heddon Street, but when Kamal Ackarie asks me at the opening to contribute a cover version to a box set he's preparing, I say I'd like to do Bowie's Ashes to Ashes in a collaboration with Joe Howe of Glasgow chipcore group Gay Against You, whose side-project Germlin I namecheck on that same trip during a Resonance FM interview as my favourite new music. Here's how the cover turns out:

For a while that stays in its box -- a one-off for a box set. When I think about the next Momus album, I envision something very different, something "mega-trad". For some reason (maybe because this sort of warm regret is just what being middle-aged feels like, or maybe because somewhere in my heart I'm hurting) I cover another song that haunts me, The Next Time, as sung by Cliff Richard in the film Summer Holiday:

Then I see Gay Against You live in Berlin, and get -- as Joe would put it -- "pretty stoked" (Hanayo is bopping away in the audience, a constant smile on her face, and the Glasgow boys bound around in white leotards, making a joyous din unto the creator). So the idea comes to me to blend the weary sad old man thing with the joyous boy thing. This is where the bipolar nature of the Joemus album (the quick-slow-quick-slow thing it does) gels. When Joe asks me to contribute vocals to a track he's doing for his Germlin solo album, I splice in a new slow section voiced by a sort of Tony Newley / early Bowie character, and the result is Mr Proctor:

I really like the way the track combines weary heartbroken middle-aged regret and youthful pop pep; gadgetry and balladry. Basically the framing for Joemus is established at this point. It'll be Joe and me, fast and slow, 8-bit-Bolan meets croony-girning Tony Newley, sad and don't-care happy. Electronic processing will give me new voices, new characters to inhabit.

The record makes new riffs the way God made Eve from Adam's ribs: Jahwise Hammer of the Babylon King is the Ashes cover rearranged to make a new song, Strewf is Thatness and Thereness re-spliced, and Widow Twanky is the Cliff Richard cover chopped up and thrown into reverse:

I like this way of writing songs; it balances being-in-control with being-out-of-control, conscious with unconscious, old with new. Birocracy gets born, and the lyrics are just off-the-top-of-the-head nonsense, but it feels happy and positive, a fresh start continuously contradicted by slowies like Thatness and Thereness, a Sakamoto cover I had lying around from the Oskar sessions in Tokyo (to be played together with the silent Heian video below):

The Cooper O' Fife sees the Germlin style turned to folk, and Ichabod Crane bends it in the direction of Manchester post-punk. Strewf! has the feel of The Residents rewriting the Oliver Twist musical, and Dracula (a duet with Kyoka, who's just moved to Berlin at this point) collides New Order riffs with gothic motifs and a touch of Henning Christiansen's horse sacrifice.

Goodiepal and Fade to White are warm and sinister in equal measure, but continue to be drawn from a place just beyond my rational ken; it's as if Click Opera sucks up all the sense, and what's left to songs is to present my secret emotional life, my dreams, the things that tug at the edges of consciousness.

If Joemus seems a bit light on well-made songs, the last few make up for the deficiency. I now regret including The Mouth Organ -- a remake of a song on the 2002 Milky album -- and tend to skip it when playing the album. But The Man You'll Never Be is a nice dark maudlin-but-mocking number about getting older -- Cohen meets Pinter, if you like -- and The Vaudevillian (actually the Joemus song I play most live, along with Widow Twanky) is a funny-tragic and rather magisterial ending in which the Tony Newley character is carted offstage in a coffin, then wakes up dead in a universe in which God has also died and is rotting slowly, accompanied by the pathetic sound of a tap dripping in the distance.

Conclusion: I went through a period of listening to Joemus every day on my computer and loving it -- it sounds particularly good on small speakers, because the cheap strident sounds Joe loves to use just shoot out all vivid and brash (on bigger speakers the bass is doing some weird stuff). I last listened to it driving around West Tokyo in Hisae's friend Satoshi's car, and it still sounded pretty great; innovative and interesting.

The album seems to me the most enjoyable thing I did all decade. Lyrically, some of the songs are clearly fluff, but the interest lies in the organic electronic textures, the personae they encourage me to adopt, the unexpected juxtapositions -- that bipolar thing -- of joy and despair, swagger and creep, bawdy and maudlin. If you could travel back through time to 1968 and ask the eight year-old me what he really liked about pop music, he'd probably say he'd been touched by the old schmaltz of Noel Harrison and Michel Legrand doing The Windmills of Your Mind as well as the lyrically meaningless but sexually kinetic energy of Tommy James and the Shondells doing Mony Mony.

Joemus -- with me as Noel Legrand and Joe as the Shondells -- touches both those bases. Perhaps it's my 1968 album, not my 2008 one.

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