Monday, June 18, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Momus - Bibliotek

By Steve Jones.

Momus is Scottish-born and (mostly) Osaka-based musician Nicholas Currie. Bibliotek is his 2012 album, the 23rd(?) of his career and his third in three years. It is a lush and frightening collection of 14 songs that, for me, represents his strongest collection of music since 2008's Joemus.

Before I begin, if you wish for a much more insightful look into this record, the artist himself has provided plenty of material for you to peruse. For starters, you can search the backlogs of his Tumblr to dig up Momus' thought processes behind each song. He also has recorded a podcast discussing some of the album's themes, which I'm sure is enlightening (I have held off listening to it in the hopes that it will not contaminate my thoughts with better ones). But if you're content with a mediocre writer, follow me below.

Bibliotek is actually a good place to start with Momus if you have not heard any of his music. His long and winding 30 year career and more than 20 albums can be intimidating for a new listener, and I have deliberated a fair bit over which of his albums present the most "complete" and "friendly" picture of his sound. But Bibliotek marries many of the qualities I like the most about Momus. These include his ability to make catchy pop songs with lush soundscapes using only minimal tools, his always evocative and provocative lyricism, and his sense of spooky, intoxicating intimacy. It is without a doubt a strange and dark album, filled with hisses and crackles, but it is at the same time very accessible, and it may be just the thing to indoctrinate you into the cult of Momus.

The album begins with "Erase," which immediately lifts the listener's spirits with its darkly folksy instrumental and its words about the desire to hit a backspace key and undo the entirety of existence, with the upshot of being able to start fresh. The track reveals a bit of Momus' experimental side too with its lack of a consistent time signature (it's mostly 5/4, but with some bars of 6/4 and 4/4 added to further unhinge the subject matter). It also introduces death as one of the album's main themes. Later tracks like "Jackdaw" involve black magic and ghosts with electronic jaws. "Dune" alludes to Kōbō Abe's novel The Woman in the Dunes and speaks of the spectre of a woman visiting the narrator at night, punctuated with erotic moaning and ending as the narrator himself "step[s] into the light."

I like to read "Farther" as continuing this storyline, with the narrator heading towards the light not of the afterlife, but of the stars. There's a little nod to Bowie in the way he says, "Hello, Planet Earth, I'm far away." It's the album's longest track and also my least favorite, being one place where the album's fuzzy bedroom electropop aesthetic works against it by not being very engaging to my ears. Estrangement, however, is another important facet of Bibliotek that "Farther" encapsulates and plays sympathetically. This is contrasted by the next track "Core." The texture of the song sounds like a far-flung ship intercepting a ancient radio broadcast rippling its way through space, allowing Momus to sing over the instrumental from Richard A. Whiting and Harry Akst's "Guilty" (you might recognize the Al Bowlly version from the film Amélie). The astronaut, still all alone, now writes a letter to his lover to the effect of "I'm in Hell, wish you were here!" It's a good bit of gallows humor.

A couple of my favorite tracks come toward the middle of the album. "Huge" has a haunting instrumental that perfectly matches the frailty of Momus' voice, creating exactly the kind of intoxicating intimacy I alluded to earlier. Momus' lyrics are great as usual, a subversive take on the notion of a loved one being "the world" to you, when really the world must always be larger and more interesting than one person. The title track "Bibliotek" was actually a last-minute addition to the album, but I'm really glad it was included. It's a relentlessly catchy piece of throwback electropop with a fantastic flourish of synth fanfare in the chorus. The album is also not without its fun moments like "Cheekbone," which sees Momus return to his portraits of eccentric professors. Professor Cheekbone is an idol, idiot, and theorem with a girlfriend described as a gay boy who gives him deep-throat.

But the strongest moment of Bibliotek comes, appropriately, at its end. The penultimate track "Shunned" is possibly the most chilling piece of music that Momus has penned, painting a beautifully bleak picture of a person wholly abandoned. I can't rave enough about how much I love the instrumental, which fuses a frightening kaleidoscope of off-key keyboards, booming timpani, an operatic aria, and other countless samples to synthesize a deeply unsettling and engaging song. Momus himself sounds defeated, resigning himself to actions like "breathing exhaust, while exhausted sparrows fall." It is a perfect dirge and perfect swan song (although I certainly hope Mr. Currie continues making music!). The actual last track "Isaak" is actually a cover/reading of the song "Green Issac (pt. 2)" by Prefab Sprout, and it sees Momus briefly step outside of his laptop and play his violin in a charmingly stilted manner. It acts as a short cap to the album instead of the true final track that is "Shunned."

I need to compliment the lyrics one more time before I finish, because one of the worst things about me as a person is my tendency to ignore the written word in music. As long as I enjoy the instrumental portions, I can disregard bad wordsmithing, and it is a rare thing for me to look to lyrics to rescue music that I find sonically boring. So it really means something when I say that I love Momus' lyricism and actively listen for it even when I am loving the sound. And I do love both the lyrics and sound of Bibliotek. It is filled with enough memorable songs and enough death, estrangement, pastoral horror, and hauntological creepiness to make it one of my favorites of the year.

Score: Lite 9

You can listen to the entire album as a YouTube playlist courtesy of Momus himself. Each track has an accompanying video that makes the YouTube experience of Bilbiotek even more worthwhile.

(Steve Jones is our resident Momus scholar and sponsored athlete. Please enjoy shunning him on his Twitter @vestenet.)

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