Review: Wormwood

Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible
Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, we’re stealin’ the idea from the Sparks Project and doing one with probably even more records out there — The Residents!  And this time we’re changing it up a little bit — we’ve got two hardcore Residents fans in me and Rich, but Aila is, at best, a casual fan, who will be hearing about 99% of these records for the first time.  DANGEROUS!  So, enjoy, THE RESIDENTS PROJECT!

Richard J. Anderson:  The Bible. The Good Book. It’s a powerful book of history and morality. Right?

Wormwood is subtitled “Curious Stories from the Bible,” and across its twenty tracks, The Residents take on some of the more unusual, graphic, disturbing, violent and sexual stories in the Old Testament, including Lot witnessing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Onan spilling his seed, and God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. Wormwood also does a couple of of New Testament stories—Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and the Book of Revelation. The point isn’t to poke fun at God or Religion, but show the other side of a book so influential on Western culture, and even The Residents themselves. Sadly, some folks didn’t get it, and the tour—especially in Europe—was marred by protests. At one show in Athens, touring guitarist Nolan Cook was hit by a rock thrown by an audience member, saved from serious injury by the eyeball mask he wore.

Wormwood also catches The Residents in the middle of another sonic transition. In 1997, after over a decade of making MIDI-based music, and half a decade spent making multimedia CD-ROM stuff, The Residents got back into live performance for the first time since Cube-E, really. (There was a live performance involving Freak Show, but that was a one-off with leftover Cube-E costumes.) The result of these performances was a piece called Disfigured Night, which deserves its own article. The sound of Disfigured Night presaged Wormwood in many ways. While still heavily based around computer music, Wormwood feels much more organic. The vocals are shared by The Singing Resident, Molly Harvey, and several other vocalists, expanding the vocal palette in a new and exciting way for The Residents.

This is also the first Residents album where Molly really gets to shine. She takes the lead on several songs, including “How to Get a Head,” “Tent Peg in the Temple,” and “Burn Baby Burn.” While “Burn Baby Burn” is powerful and dark, live versions crank it to ten. Molly’s plaintively joyful voice makes a line like “Soon I will be burning for my daddy” sound as powerful and heartfelt as the daughter of Jephthah is said to have felt when her father told her that she would have to be killed to honor his bargain with God for a great victory. This is all in the Bible here. The album notes even provide scriptural references. (Specifically, Judges 11:31–40 for this one.)

As good Wormwood is, the performances and production on the album limits the power of the music. The Residents released both a full live album of Wormwood and an album of live-in-the-studio cuts of some of the material called Roadworms. In a live setting the songs take on a ferocity and power that the album doesn’t reach. “Burn Baby Burn” is especially transformed in the live rendition, as mentioned above. Of course, The Residents couldn’t do that if the source material didn’t have enough to build on. Wormwood is the first 90’s Residents album worth your time. It’s a good, if not great, entry point, but should be listened to early on in explorations of The Residents canon. Wormwood is essential, vital, and the start of a revitalized era for the band that, while still having ups and downs, has some of the best work they’ve done since the 70s.

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  For whatever it’s worth, Wormwood is the first album to come out when I was a fan of the Residents.  I’d gotten into them in that period after Have a Bad Day came out (and luckily didn’t decide to start with that one), so I was really excited.  I think that excitement did me in a little bit, as I really wanted to like Wormwood more than I did.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great tracks on here — like “Burn Baby Burn” especially is amazing in all of its incarnations — but a lot of it does leave me cold.  I’m not a big fan of the Singing Resident on this album; I find his stuttering as Moses on “Bridegroom of Blood” kind of grating, actually.  (Sorry for stealing your schtick, Aila!)

As for the subject — I was really excited for this; none of the song titles or stories/verses were leaked, so I didn’t know what the content would be until I got the album in my hot little hands (paying extra even, as I wanted to support the local record store near my college… but they didn’t get it in, so the guy ran to Borders for me and bought it that morning, which… well, that was nice, but a bit pricey, and I would have felt like an asshole saying “Uh, no, 18 or 19 dollars or whatever is too expensive”).  And, well, though the Residents said it would be a mix of both Testaments, that wasn’t really true, and I think that’s a bit of a cop-out.  Whenever anyone goes to talk about the dark side of the Bible or the Weird Parts or whatnot, they almost ALWAYS go to the Old Testament.  And I guess that’s probably where a lot of that stuff is, but there’s some of that in the New Testament as well, and it would have been more interesting, in my opinion at least, to look at the half of the Bible that seems to have a bit more sway in modern American culture.  (Wacky laws from Leviticus overridden by Peter but still cited anyway notwithstanding.)

Cover of "Roadworms"
Cover of Roadworms

That said, Rich is right about the live versions.  Even though I wasn’t super into Wormwood, I bought Roadworms like a good little fan (see also: the Disfigured Night DVD despite being kinda… hating… the VHS of the performance), and was very pleasantly surprised.  The arrangements there have a lot more punch and don’t seem nearly as sterile as Wormwood.  (Though they’re back to using real instruments, I think the clinicalness and overworked-ness of the MIDI-era remained on this one.)

I guess I do have to give Wormwood credit, though — in a college course I had about the Old Testament As Literature, I ended up being able to riff in a paper about the Moses’ circumcision scene due to “Bridegroom of Blood”, so hey, thanks, Residents!  (That was way more successful than mentioning James K. Polk in a AP History essay based on my knowledge of him from the They Might Be Giants song…)  But if you’re not in college and/or don’t have any course requirements for religion courses, probably go with Roadworms instead of Wormwood.  Or get both, I suppose.  But I’ll bet you’ll listen to Roadworms way more often.

Aila:  The Residents began the 90s in relatively decent fashion with Freak Show, and then seemed to go more or less completely off the rails for the rest of the decade, until 1998′s Wormwood: Curious Stories From The Bible. It might not be the best of The Residents, but it is probably the best thing they’d done up to this point for at least a decade.

The concept of the album is a huge part of what makes it work. The Bible, if nothing else, is a great source for some pretty oblique parables and stories. The Residents gathered some of them and attempted to put them into song. It’s not entirely successful at every turn, but it’s far from being a failure, and the concept of the album might be the best the band ever attempted. The music itself is mixed in terms of quality, although it’s definitely a major improvement over most of the band’s cheap-sounding synth-based works of the 90s. Still, the weakest tracks are probably the all-instrumentals which bookend the album. The strongest tracks depend on the quality of the stories themselves as much as the songs. The best are the probably the creepiest, and the back-to-back human sacrifice themed songs “Burn Baby Burn” and “Kill Him!” are hard to ignore. As far as the best overall song, I would probably have to say it’s “I Hate Heaven.” The second half of the

The Residents - I Hate Heaven
The Residents – I Hate Heaven single art

album is certainly stronger than the first to my ears. The singing is still mostly problematic, but I’ve gone on about that enough in previous reviews (to be fair, a few of the tracks which don’t rely on the main singer are noticeably better in the vocals department). Most of the stories these songs are based on are definitely head-scratchers, which is part of the appeal. Besides the human sacrifice (or aborted prove-your-faith human sacrifice in the case of the Abraham and Issac based “Kill Him!”), the stories which highlight God’s apparent obsession with circumcision, “Dinah and The Unclean Skin” and “Bridegroom of Blood,” certainly raise a few eyebrows. That said, this wasn’t the intention of the band who apparently only meant to present the stories in an objective manner, but the stories themselves kind of condemn The Bible in terms of it being infallible source of moral guidance in my opinion. Not that I believed it was beforehand, but these songs certainly reminded me.

If I had to sum up my thoughts on undertaking this review before I did it, it probably would have been something along the very sarcastic lines of: “Wonderful! Two of my favorite things – The Bible and long 1990s Residents concept albums! Life does not get any better than this.” But it turns out I actually enjoyed Wormwood. It definitely requires a bit of patience, and with a few exceptions knowing a little of the source material is very helpful, but overall it’s a really good record and I have to recommend it to any Residents fan, and possibly even the non-fan. This is an example of the band doing a concept album right.

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  • Owen

    Coming from a christian home, I was never particularly “religious”, but I would still often read my bible out of duty to my parents. As I grew older, I realized that I shouldn’t follow their commands blindly, especially in a matter as important as religion, but I continued to read my bible on-and-off because outside of the context as a religious creed or a “how-to” guide, there are some really, really interesting stories in the Bible, and a lot of cool stuff that people overlook (Hosea being forced to marry a prostitute, so that he would know “how god felt about his people”? Solid gold!) Thus, I had a lot of prior knowledge and context to what The Residents were talking about on this album, and I found it an absolute hoot. Finally, someone else talked about that weird-ass Moses story about the circumcision of his son! Finally, someone else seemed to hold at least a semi-empathetic opinion of Absalom! Praise the Lord, someone knew who Onan was!
    Honestly, there’s very little on this album I don’t like. So much of this works for me. Cain and Abel is legitimately the saddest song I have ever heard, Melancholy Clumps perfectly summarizes how I imagined living on the ark felt, Spilling the Seed has one of my favorite vocals on any Residents song and is a story about my o.g. bible homeboy Onan, Bathsheba Bathes conveys perfectly how absolutely horrifyingly dark David’s actions in that situation were (whereas I have found most christians are eager to talk David up without really acknowledging how terrible what he did was), and How To Get A Head gave me a new context on how Herodias’ daughter may have felt in that situation. And ultimately, I find that is where Wormwood triumphs: giving a human face to many of these people who have become mythological figures in the creed of Christianity. I mean, how would you have reacted to any of the situations these characters were placed into? And as exceptional as some of the circumstances are presented in the bible, the reactions of the people from God’s actions are always distinctly human, whether they be righteous or deeply, deeply dark. Wormwood not only conveys the darkness that is prevalent throughout the Bible exceptionally well, but puts a human face onto it and even occasionally wrings comedy out of it! (The liner notes are solid gold. Insinuating that Cain’s curse for killing his brother was actually a “blessing” from God because he’s so impressed Cain sacrificed his brother to him? Classic!)
    But yeah, all of this being a long-winded way of saying that I love Wormwood. I feel like the audience for this album can be kind of narrow is the only negative thing I can think to say of it: any of the religious people I know are offended by the “blasphemous” takes on the story, and everyone else is put off by it because they think it’s “christian music”. But that doesn’t change the fact that Wormwood is a truly inspired album that is unlike anything else I have ever hood. Bleedin’ brilliant.