Review Summary: It's racist. But my God is it well-made.
Pop music isn't kind to the Inuit. Bob Dylan's Mighty Quinn is a nature-worshipping, "Colors of the Wind"-ass clown, and Zappa's are as synonymous with the landscape as snow and huskies until Saint Alfonso swoops in with his pancake breakfast. Even now, there's a Brooklyn indie artist named "Eskimeaux" walking around (not Inuit.) But the extreme of pop music's aesthetic fetishization of the Inuit comes in the form of one of the most anti-pop record ever--Eskimo, a skillfully constructed piece of sound art whose conceptual heart is a cartoon of an idealized, indigenous American population that never existed.
The Residents didn't even bother to learn Inuit language, opting instead for pitch-shifted gibberish. Their gods get mad and steal kids (shades of blood libel). Worst of all, the Residents purport this is actually a "document of life" in the Arctic. It's not. It's a simulation of a fictional Arctic people, conjured with a lot of wind, some gibberish, and the occasional stray melody. And as suspect as the concept is, it's the most effective piece of sound art the Residents ever made.
"The Walrus Hunt" kicks the album off beautifully. High voices chant in unison with splashing water as wind howls in every direction. They don't say it, but it's obvious: the voices are the Eskimo, rowing in unison and singing as they hunt walrus. The pained vocalizations of the dying walrus are next, followed by the Eskimo rowing into the distance. It's one of the most instantly transportive scene-setters this side of Gas's "Pop I," and the album sustains this mood throughout.
"Birth" demonstrates how powerful the Residents' sparse use of melody can be. The organs that cut into the song halfway, framing the miracle of birth, create the album's purest and most gorgeous moment. And the fact that such a wondrous moment can be conveyed with such ludicrously pitch-shifted voices speaks to just how skilled the Residents are with sound design.
Soon, the child is offered to a spirit, in one of the album's most terrifying moments. An alien wind, sharper and fiercer than any that we've heard before, enters; through stereo, seems to circle the choked cries of the child. The child vanishes. And the festival continues in an amorphous haze of drums, mallets, and more of that pitch-shifted foolery. By the time the album's over, we feel like we've witnessed an entire, parallel world in 39 minutes. We haven't.
Eskimo didn't need to be about the "Eskimo." The Residents did a spectacular job charting the customs of two made-up species on Mark Of The Mole and Tunes Of Two Cities, neither of which it would be a stretch to call among the Residents' best material. Thus, we end up with an ethnomusical mockery that just happens to be some of the Residents' most technically impressive work. This is an album to admire, an album to sink into. But I'll be damned if it isn't racist.