Review Summary: An album that's more interesting to talk about than it is to listen to.
Considering how prevalent and powerful Judeo-Christian religions are in the modern western world (and of course, throughout it’s history since the rise of the Roman Catholic Church nearly two thousand years ago), it’s always surprising and a little funny how little is actually known about the centrepiece scripture of this religious umbrella: The Bible. Now, most people are familiar with the stories said to detail the life and teachings of the Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth, detailed in the four gospels that begin The Bible’s New Testament. It’s also safe to say most are also familiar with some of the stories from the lesser discussed (but arguably far more interesting) Old Testament; the creation story (or at least the very first one that opens Genesis anyway, as there is more than one), Noah’s Ark and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
The Bible is generally touted by the various Churches and adherents of Jesus as “the good book”, a collection of stories containing great religious truths, miracles and beautiful poetry (all of which are of course subjective to the reader). If you actually sit down and read parts of it, especially the Old Testament, you’ll actually notice that the Bible is full of barbarism, awfully outdated and primitive laws, misogyny, superstition, slavery and the actions of a jealous and capricious god and his zealots.
Enigmatic art collective The Residents (whom almost seem as mythical as Biblical characters themselves) took a great interest in the darker parts of “the good book”, of which there are too many to count, and set some of them to music, resulting in the album “Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible”. While The Residents managed to shed light on some very intriguing Biblical anecdotes, I find myself more interested in discussing these than the album’s actual music.
“Wormwood” is probably one of The Residents most accessible works. Consisting of 20 songs, all of which tell interesting tales, but unfortunately do not accomplish much musically, “Wormwood” ends up being quite a slog after a while. The songs on “Wormwood” are all digestible lengths (which is fair enough, considering there are 20 of them) and are all relatively straightforward compositions without a lot of dynamic variation between them. In all fairness, the main weakness in the album lies in this, as other than that, this is still a relatively enjoyable affair that stays interesting throughout thanks to its central theme.
The songs are generally quite upbeat, featuring wacky instrumentation, which of course makes for a strange juxtaposition with its subject matter. The colourful, rhythmic music is accented by the distinct, gruff and somewhat cartoonish vocals of Randy Rose (though I’m not sure he’s the lone male performer here, and I guess we’ll never know) and the versatile voice of Molly Harvey who interchange with each other depending on whether the central character of the story in question is male or female. “Tent Peg in the Temple
”, a keyboard heavy piece with a bizarre swing-like rhythm (a good example of what a lot of this album is like) details the murder of Sisera by Jael, who allows him to hide in her tent. Upon him falling asleep, Jael drives a tent peg through his temple, killing him. As is the case with most of the album’s songs, this story which is easily located in the Bible (this particular story is from Judges 4: 16-22) seems to take precedence over the music in terms of what is interesting to the listener.
There are a fair amount of catchy moments on “Wormwood”. “Spilling the Seed
” (based on Genesis 38, by far one of the most interesting ones to discuss) has an infectious vocal phrase that’s bound to stick in your head and “Judas Saves”, probably the album’s standout track, is one of the closest things to a pop song The Residents have written (if it weren’t for the strange minimally instrumental passages and Randy’s strange, breathy delivery), while still managing to maintain enough abrasiveness to make it distinctly a Residents song. “Burn Baby Burn” is in a similar vein to this and of course both of these songs are not alone throughout the course of the album’s hour long run time.
While probably not the most musically satisfying entry in The Residents’ Goliath discography, “Wormwood” is at least catchy enough and conceptually engaging enough not to be overlooked. Pretty much every song on the album dares you to go check the Bible for sources to see if they’re making the absurd stories up or not (which of course, they are not, all of these songs are based off of stories that are in fact in the Bible). “Wormwood” also made for some entertaining live shows, which are arguably more enjoyable to watch than the studio version is to sit all the way through. The amount of content on “Wormwood” definitely does not end up working in its favour, but certainly presents enough revisitable material, just not much incentive to be taken in its entirety on the regular.