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Joemus by Momus (carrying on with strange ideas)

December 15, 2008
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It’s taken me a while, because I waited for my copy to arrive from Darla and then allowed myself adequate time for digestion, but I can now tell you what I think about this year’s Momus album, Joemus.

Here’s Momus with Joe Howe. Joe is Momus’s collaborator on Joemus, is half of Gay Against You, all of GERMLIN, a specialist in bit-crushed bleeps, the man to go to for self-collapsing song stutters.
joemus

He rejuvenates by surprise. Joe, I think, is mostly something that happens to the songs. The collisions are exactly the right kind.

But what about the songs themselves? When historians of song, in further future years, return their attention to Momus’s great world of work (about 20 albums by my estimation) how will these specimens be taxonomized?

Maybe it’s the result of having young Glaswegian Joe hanging round the inbox, or maybe it’s to do with Momus’s forthcoming Book of Scotlands (more mention of which, later) but this is the most Scottish Momus album — not counting the Summerisle collaboration with Anne Laplantine, of course. Perhaps those future historians of song will see fit to box up a retrospective disc (unavailable on any sort of disc, in practice) entitled The Scottish Momus, on which Spin Thread Annie, The Tailor of Dunblane, Lute Score, The Laird of Inversnecky, Tinnitus, Scottish Lips (and so on) are joined by Joemus tracks like Goodiepal, Mr Proctor, and The Cooper o’ Fife.

There’s a Scottish voice speaking throughout the record which, as on The Laird of Inversnecky (“God it made you glad to be alive!”) is both serene and, for unstated reasons, rather sad. The Scottish voice expresses the extraordinary with a friendly matter-of-factness, remaining unflustered whilst listing off a series of marriages to boys with Pastels badges and drunks with Special Brew, or dismissing with nonchalance an inadequate
Ulysses returning from “the scrotum of the sea”. “Earthy” doesn’t even come close to describing what’s going on here.

There’s another voice that sneaks in and out of the album. A mutant Cockney, advancing rotting from a less-than-salubrious corner of Momus’s Ultraconformist album, takes the lead on Strewf! (either Momus’s knowledge of Cockney slang far exceeds my own, or most of this song consists of nice fat greasy coinages) and is put to death in the closing song The Vaudevillian. Incidentally, how many of Momus’s albums end with a meditation death (real or figurative), and why? Another retrospective collection might be called The Mortal Momus.

If the Scottish voice comes over as weirdly friendly in its dismissiveness, the Cockney voice is terrifying and threatening because it might just be trying to be our friend. Mr Proctor — an earlier version of the song is in the video embedded below — has these two voices in opposition. The way the song gets hi-jacked once, doesn’t learn from its naivete and then gets hijacked a second time makes for excellent drama.

What I’m trying to suggest, I suppose, is that it wouldn’t be quite true to say that Momus has thrown narrative out of his songwriting. It’s there all the time but, like the music itself, subjected to fabulous distortions, threatened by necessary hooliganism, had in stitches by its own foul sense of humour.

joemus550

Of course some would point out that not many of these songs have the narrative thrust of a Momus classic such as, say, Bishonen (and for those who like that kind of thing, apparently Ubuweb is about to host mp3s of all of his albums for Creation records, and believe me they deserve a place in any e-library). But the fact is, Momus doesn’t belong in the Royal Academy of songwriting. I imagine that Momus, making Joemus at the same time as writing two books, had found other uses for conventional narrative devices. The fun in Joemus, then, is found in the static interruptions. The static interruptions then begin conveying their own messages.

I recently read an idea in a book about radio that to early broadcasters, for whom clarity of message was a considerable technological challenge, regional accents and faltering sound were equivalent problems that made a mess of the “information function” of the medium. That kind of Reithian-prescriptivist, “BBC English”-privileging attitude misses the point that regional accents and faltering sound themselves both communicate an awful lot of information. I suppose that Momus is both undoing and redoing that “information function” that his songwriting is probably best known for, and it’s interesting that he should play with these two devices.

If dressing the character is what you’re after, then there’s always Widow Twanky. This is a song where the singer attempts to embody a lost lover by becoming a pantomime dame, and earlier this year I did my own version of the song. The song in my hands is unclothed and then stripped to less than a skeleton. I did have my own reasons for singing a version of this song, though. I’d just released my own modest album and it soon became clear that for very good reasons my work was known mostly to Momus enthusiasts: in many ways an ideal audience, needless to say, but I did develop a bit of anxiety about my own “identity” as an artist (foolish!). I’m rather proud of how I tackled this anxiety. It became clear that the way to be obviously less like Momus would be to sing a Momus song. Clear? Then here, for pity’s sake, is the song in its lush and fully-clothed form:

And I feel much better now, by the way.

Well, this is not even half of what I think about this exceptional album. I could tell you how Goodiepal is simply more likeable than any song I’ve heard this year, and The Man You’ll Never Be (this is the one I’m most into, if you must know) achieves a rare combination of the comic, the sentimental and the vulgar. In fact, I’m certainly enjoying telling you what I think about Joemus, and it’s rather a shame that I will finish here. Goodbye!

(Note! The title of this post is borrowed from an old poem by a friend of mine)

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