Review: Animal Lover

Cover of "Animal Lover"
Cover of Animal Lover

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:  This is the hardest review I’ve had to write for the entire endeavor. I’m going to cut right to the bone here: I don’t like Animal Lover. At all. It’s bad in a way that the late 80s and early 90s stuff is not. Those albums simply felt uninspired and dull. Animal Lover is the opposite of that: lush, and textured, and clearly had a lot of thought go into it. In fact, The Residents claim they were working on it before the Demons Dance Alone album. You can’t call this a toss-off release.

So… the premise of the album? Well, supposedly it’s built around rhythms of, er, animals copulating. The lyrics are about human relationships with animals, from the animal’s point of view. I don’t get any vibe of sex out of this, and while many of the lyrics concern animals, the point-of-view thing gets lost, and quick. Hell, the song “Two Lips” is actually about the Tulip Mania that gripped the Dutch during the 17th Century. The concept vanishes about two songs into the disc, occasionally popping up again, but to say it’s an album about animals and humans is just wrong.

This is not the problem with Animal Lover.

The problem is, well, I just don’t like it. It rubs me the wrong way. There’s some good points of Animal Lover. We get a lovely swan-song performance from Molly Harvey, doing her best old woman, and creepy child voices on “What Have My Chickens Done Now?” Nolan “N.” Cook’s guitar playing never fails to impress… but everything else? I don’t know. There’s an over-reliance on vocal effects and multi-tracked choruses that come out as exceedingly shrill. There’s a roughness that annoys me that may come from The Residents combining new work with the original demos they worked on post-Wormwood, but I can’t say for certain…

I just don’t like Animal Lover. Maybe you will. Thankfully, it’s the outlier in the Residents post-Demons Dance Alone discography.

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  I don’t think I hate Animal Lover as much as Rich does, but it is a mess.  It seemed they really had concept drift all over this one.  Even when they announced it, they couldn’t quite decide what it was.  First, they said it was about people into bestiality, then they said it was about people in love with each other from animals’ points of view, then they said the thing about rhythms of animals fucking, and well, honestly?  None of these applies.  You get a couple good songs, like “On the Way to Oklahoma”, which actually does fit… at least one of the themes, being about a guy who thinks he has turned into a tiger, and eats and fucks his way around, but… yeaaah.

It doesn’t help that most of the music seems kind of phoned in, too.  It’s just… really a mess.  It’s really strange to me how the Residents kept at this album, even though they’ve definitely been known to drop projects — even projects they’ve announced.  (American Composers’ Series, anyone?  Or the Eskimo opera? Or the God in Three Persons film? Hell, they even have a portion of their website devoted to failed projects.)

Looking at the site for the album, it really appears — and this wasn’t noted when the album came out — that the Residents themselves didn’t really get what to do with this one either.  They say they’d been working on it since Wormwood, and had different lineups and different stuff going on — and set it aside for Demons Dance Alone…. only to come back to it when they didn’t know what to do next.  And they still didn’t really do it.  It’s one of the only Residents albums that seems to have been recorded for the desire to have New Product after a while, rather than, well, an album.  The only other one I can think of that was New Product was Assorted Secrets, which the Residents have disowned… but was actually pretty cool.  Way cooler, I’m sad to say, than Animal Lover.  Hopefully getting it out from over their heads let the Residents do later albums (which are, like Demons Dance Alone, high quality)… but I think I’d rather have just had a couple of the tracks leak out on a Residue-type of compilation with a “what could have been” note.  I think it’s a little odd to release a concept album when you yourselves don’t really know what the concept is.  How are we supposed to deal with it then, huh?

Aila:  Animal Lover is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard. It succeeds on every level, and it’s a masterpiece achievement by any standard, for a Residents album or not. Just kidding. It’s almost worse than Hitler and 9/11 combined (…well, almost).

This is another ‘concept’ album, as is almost every album by this band. This time I’m not even sure what the exact concept is, but it’s got something to do with animals. Ho-hum. The music is OK but sort of soulless. It’s not even played or produced poorly, it’s just lacking something. That said, the few instrumentals, like “Mr. Bee’s Bumble” and “Ingrid’s Oily Tongue,” are probably some of the least annoying tracks on the album. The music sometimes feels a bit like a film noir soundtrack, but from a really lousy movie. On the vocal tracks the main singer is just as annoying as ever, and the female singer who has appeared on recent albums is almost as bad, especially on a song like “The Monkey Man,” which is best described as bland audio vomit with a sharply annoying finish. She does also sing the only tolerable song with vocals on the record, “Inner Space,” but it’s no saving grace. Actually, this album is really just a collection of terrible songs, interweaved with even more terrible songs. The last batch of songs, apparently remixes of the first part of the album which are all titled “Imaginary Jack,” are redundant and even worse than the bulk of the album. I kind of wish I had something mildly nice to say about this record, but I don’t really. It ends. That’s the best part of it.

Animal Lover is another one for the fire in my book. I’d say this is one for ‘fans only,’ but when I think about it, I wouldn’t even recommend it for a Residents fan. I mean, can’t you find something better to do? Go for a walk. Eat some beans. Punch yourself in the face. Any of those are better.

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  • Owen

    I originally felt almost as disdainful towards this album as you guys did. Having heard chunks of it online, I originally dismissed it as a “not for me” Residents album, going back to their earlier stuff instead. Now that most of their early stuff has lost its lustre to me (I find very little of it revisitable for repeat listens), I’ve been very much enjoying listening to The Residents’ 2000s albums, as I find them to be my favorites in their canon (the notable exceptions being God in 3 Persons and Wormwood). During this time I listened to Animal Lover a few more times, and each time it grew on me more. A lot more. In fact, I’ll go so far as to court controversy by saying that it is THE Residents album for me. My absolute favorite one. Even over God in 3 Persons.

    The arrangements on Animal Lover are some of the most beautiful that the band has ever done. The lone chorus that opens “Elmer’s Song”, eventually giving way to a simple harp section and slowly building to incorporate chimes and acoustic guitar, is a beautifully haunting arrangement which I hold in esteem above any other the band has ever done. The vocal performances are excellent as well (aside from the aforementioned chorus, “Inner Space” comes to mind), and the variety in vocalists over the course of the album helps to break up any potential irritation I might have had from some of the more atonal vocal deliveries.

    What really sells this album for me though, and what I was surprised to see that you didn’t find with it, is the consistency in tone as a mood piece. Although many of the purported “concepts” of the album are indeed false (I can’t imagine something like “Dead Men” is based off of animal mating calls), what makes this feel like a unified whole is its thematic consistency. Animal Lover, much like almost any of the Late-Era Residents catalogue, deals heavily in loss and despair. Every song deals with loss on some level (Loss of life or loved ones being very prominent, as well as loss of sanity), and it helps set the overall mood of desperation and depression in which many of the songs’ narrators find themselves in. Also, I had also originally thought that the songs were supposed to be narrated by an animal perspective on human behaviour, and was somewhat confused when they weren’t, but the actual “concept” is in the stories in the liner notes of the album. In the liner notes, each song is preceded by a narration of the events of the song, from the perspective of an animal viewing the events as an unbiased third party. Although the album is only ostensibly about the relationships between animals and people, these stories give a context to what is happening in the lyrics from an animal perspective that isn’t nearly as emotionally invested in the stories as the human players are. To me, this feels like The Residents are trying to say that our alleged “mental superiority” over these animals only allows us to act even less rationally than them, ultimately allowing emotional triggers and overanalysis to overcome us and do terrible things. Ultimately, another thing I feel that this album is saying that one of the big things separating us from the Animal narrators is the capacity for guilt, and how it irrationally consumes us. I may be overthinking this one a hell of a lot, but I think that even the fact that I was able to feel all of this from the work says something about its overall depth. So, yeah, they botched the “concept” on this one, whatever the initial concept even was, but to me that doesn’t make the points it does make any less cogent.

    Ultimately, Animal Lover is the Residents album I listen to the most out of any of their output. I think there’s a real richness to it, both musically and thematically. I’m by no means trying to say any of you are wrong, but I suppose I’m hoping you’ll give it another listen someday. It was a definite grower for me. Also, yes, I realize the irony in decrying “overanalysis” and overanalyzing the shit out of this album myself.

    I guess the punchline is “overanalysis can overcome us and make us do terrible things, such as like Animal Lover!” I guess I’ve undermined my own point at this juncture. Ah well.

  • TommyTopHat

    Personally, I feel that this is one of the greatest albums the Residents have ever done. I have to agree with quite a lot of what Owen says about it.

    Perhaps the concept is flimsy, but I don’t think that matters too much. There’s an interesting and varied mixture of songs, many of them quite different from one another, but they somehow work well when put together.

    Animal Lover, in my opinion, contains some of the Rez’s most beautiful songs. My Window, for instance, makes me want to cry every time I hear it. What Have My Chickens Done Now, like the Cure song Lullaby, is soothing despite its bleak nature. Elmer’s Song reminds me how fragile people can be. The three instrumentals are superb, and there are also some more fun songs reminiscent of Duck Stab, such as On the Way to Oklahoma. I could go on….

    While it may claim to be about animals, this album is the Residents at their most human and vulnerable.

  • limnrix

    What? I like this better than Commercial Album. Lies!

  • http://www.facebook.com/maddiedmx Madeleine Drake

    This is one of my favourite Rez albums and certainly one of their best modern albums. Yeah, the concept fails but there is so much beautiful and challenging music here. My Window alone makes this a standout work.

  • Stephen

    I’m surprised and disappointed to see such a negative response to Animal Lover from all three reviewers, since in my view this album can’t get enough love – it’s my favourite Residents album, and despite the extremely high quality of their other output, I have to say it isn’t even close.

    Let’s be clear here: the concept is sound. You just have to realise that these songs are not about animals at all, quite the opposite – they are, every single one of them, about what it is to be human. The liner notes tie the album’s title to its actual concept in (I think) a very clear way, and the inability of the animals to comprehend the humans’ irrational actions throw the songs into an even more tragic light. The liner notes aren’t essential for enjoying the music, but without them I do agree the title is a nonsequitur. (The stuff about animal mating rhythms is of course a load of crap – I can only presume the Residents like to make shit up from time to time.)

    What I’m surprised that none of you noted is the album’s unrelentingly dark tone. I know it’s the Residents we’re talking about, but even for them it’s exceptionally bitter – even Demons Dance Alone had its lighter moments. This album is a furious indictment of mankind from start to finish: these are songs about hatred, fear, sadness, insanity, paranoia, greed, selfishness and mob mentality. The contrast between the desperate human specimens on parade in this album and the generally naive animals who inhabit the liner notes couldn’t be more striking, but it’s the music that really drives the point home – the arrangement of every song is lovingly imbued with just the right amount of ugliness to support the lyrics’ vitriolic caricature of humanity. Sure, there are a few “straightforward” ones (like the gorgeous and devastating Inner Space, which I imagine is one of the tracks you considered “bland”), but mostly the music on this record makes your flesh creep in exactly the right way. The two opening songs deserve special mention for being nothing short of terrifying (seriously, what a welcome!) but the sinister feel barely lets up even in the less aggressive numbers.

    So I suppose what I’m particularly surprised by is the way Animal Lover doesn’t seem to have made any impression on any of you at all. I can understand not liking the album – it’s probably the most confrontational set of songs I’ve ever heard, after all – but I have no idea how phrases like “ho-hum” and “phoned in” found their way into these reviews. When I first listened to Animal Lover, it rocked me to my core, and that reaction – whether for better or for worse – is one I would have expected to be universal.

    • http://kittysneezes.com Rev. Syung Myung Me

      This is the thing I find so interesting about these reviews. For me, Animal Lover just never grabbed me at all, and I would have thought (like you said) that reaction to be universal. I think that’s one of the great things about the Residents — even if I don’t like a record, it’s clear they’re doing SOMETHING. (And apparently even on albums I might call “phoned in”!) And, well, honestly — that’s better than most albums I’d just not care about either way. So I definitely embrace folks telling us we’re wrong on this project! (And, uh, if you look at the other comments, the three of us reviewers are apparently on our own on this one.)

  • http://www.leoj.bandcamp.com LeoJ

    My favourite Res album! I’ll go as far as saying it’s one of my favourite albums of all time.
    I was actually shocked to hear all three reviewers really disliked it. Like most good Residents albums, you have to first overcome whatever expectations you might have had before you can start to appreciate what it truly is. For me, it was the first (along with Duck Stab) Residents album I heard and since then I continue to play it more than any other Res album. It definitely took me a while, maybe even longer than others, to appreciate and to make its way up to the top.
    Each to their own opinion but it’s good to see some of the comments about how great it is!