Review Summary: A nightmare full of clowns, but you can’t help but laugh when you wake up
If you like progressive music, I want you to ask yourself: How does it make you feel exactly? Does it feel like it was made by clowns? Does it make you wonder what everyone else loves about it? Does it make you feel at home? Like you’re understood? Does it make you feel like you don’t want to go in tomorrow? Does it make you laugh? Cry? Does it have its way and leave you staring at your pillow? Does it make all other music pale in comparison?
Cardiacs pose all these questions and more, steeped in the tradition of progressive rock artists like Frank Zappa and Mr. Bungle who marry silliness with their technical abilities. Becoming a Cardiacs fan has been a joy in so many ways because of this combination and the way that their songs suddenly shift at a turn with pinpoint accuracy. Their debut ‘A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window’ starts their journey toward fully embracing their weird potential, being a little more digestible than some of their later albums, and a little more refined and well-produced than their early work.
‘A Little Man’ features a lineup of 80’s drums, guitars, keyboards, saxophone, horns, xylophone, and a healthy dose of mellotron. Throughout the album the main attraction are the signature vocals, melodies and bizarre lyrics sung by the late, great Tim Smith. It’s easy to get distracted from the strange chord progressions and complex mesh of instruments playing on top of each other. While listening to the lyrics, you can tell they are mostly nonsense, like “Calling is craving is letting the rain in, it peers at me and is it understanding? HA!”, from ‘R.E.S’, and, “Mr. Technique’s doing well, he stands around in poses just like THIS”, referring to a character, whose pose is left to your imagination, and is only mentioned in the song “I’m Eating in Bed”. And while they might sound like utter nonsense, there is a sort of a story possibly being told about the unnamed little man, with repeated lyrics about creating a monster, the little man’s “hope day”, and the mantra, “That’s the way we all go.” The lyrics contain many absurdist gems to get stuck in your head and make you laugh on a bad day, and perhaps to find some meaning in.
Despite the focus on the vocals, they are more than a cover up for the equally fantastic instrumentals. The song ‘In a City Lining’ starts with a sinister mellotron melody complemented by an off-beat drum-and-guitar line and Tim singing “I am alone and have no one permanently, but if one takes it by the hand, the funny man laughs” in the verse. And then suddenly the song is a waltz, getting faster and faster, becoming a ska tune for a second, complete with horns, then suddenly it becomes a polka song in the chorus, going “Michael’s got himself a girlfriend”, and then we’re right back into the verse, but Tim is asking “What’s in a name? La la la la”. And if it sounds like a mess on paper, it is; but yet that makes it all the more impressive how smoothly the songwriting flows through all its twists and turns.
What may be A Little Man’s greatest strength is its variety in tone. The album’s weirdest song, ‘R.E.S’, alternates between showtunes and a waltz in the song’s first half, shifting through every possible improvised continuation of its main idea in the second half, which never fails to make me laugh at its sheer absurdity. ‘Is This the Life?’ is maybe the most ‘normal’ Cardiacs song, due to its simple melody and 4/4 time signature, but it is not even a little boring due to the heavy use of mellotron and lengthy weird guitar solo in the back half. ‘The Whole World Window’ is the most melancholy song on the album, detailing the narrator’s relationship with his mother, ending the album on a long drawn-out note.
Although I consider ‘Sing to God’ to be the more impressive Cardiacs album because of the culmination of the ideas shown here, ‘A Little Man’ is simply a one-of-a-kind listen in itself, and doesn’t really have any filler, which could be argued for on ‘Sing to God’. Though there are songs that might take some time to warm up to, like the plodding, yet expertly composed “The Icing on the World”, and the introductory title track, which serves well to ease unsuspecting listeners into the utter madness. Hence the reason why I consider this to be the ideal starting point for Cardiacs (plus, if you don’t like it then you will have wasted 49 minutes instead of 82). And if there’s one question this album does answer, it’s that clowns can make music sound ***ing awesome too.