First, I’d like to devote a little time to talking about schizophrenia. There are those who toss the word around often, especially those whachamacalit academic types who spout this and that about the mental effects of the current world order. For most others, the term generally comes into play only in reference to a certifiable illness. But regardless, schizophrenia is grave, serious condition. It signals a sense of inner chaos, of internal hullabaloo. It is tiring, all consuming, confusing.
Cut to The Soundtrack of Our Lives, whose music seems to explode full force from this tumultuous core. Listening to their release, Welcome to the Infant Freebase, is like rapid channel surfing on satellite-loaded cable — they both result in a headachy, sensory overload. Another metaphor for you: within are the threads of hundreds of musical manifestos, the seams of interminable (sub)(super)human themes, all woven into a mish-mosh, ragged quilt. In part, this can be contributed to the fact that TSOL is the brainchild of Ebbot Lundberg, who formed the band after wildly successful Union Carbide Productions imploded due to creative differences. When such a rift occurs, new projects from old frontmen have a tendency to revel in rampant artistic egomania; this can be both a good thing (Stephen Malkmus, Richard Ashcroft) or a bad thing (Frank Black, Big Audio Dynamite). And with Welcome to the Infant Freebase, the tendency is toward the latter.
Though just released in the US this year, the album has been around since 1996 — which you can hear in Ebbot Lundberg’s tendency to sing with a Temple-of-the-Dog-ish swagger. His bravado is at mega-volume in the album’s opener, “Mantra Slider”, which, outside of his gruff singing, rises from the depths on cresendoing bagpipes before thrusting forth on an awkward mix of honky-tonk guitars and choirboy cooing. It’s a song so musically confounding that it’s hard to listen to the lyrics. If you manage to cut through, though, you’ll hear gems like “I’m an astrological burnout that keeps knocking at your door”, or “Try to stay away from the ironic, dead end streets”. (Let me just clarify, in case the sarcasm failed to translate, that those gems are surely cubic zirconia).
On this record, genres mix and meld like diasporas in the metropolitan center — occasionally smoothly, but often categorized by appropriation, cultural cleansing, and bloody, angry fights. Track three, “Underground Indian”, is a case in point. Its stab at multiculturalism — mimicking a faux Native American sound while speaking of “Indian Chief” and “Big Chief” — is both cheap and, well, offensive. Or titles like “Confrontation Camp”. Or “Magic Muslims” which . . . wait, I’ll just let your imagination run wild with that one. (It won’t have to run far; just check out CNN for the kind of stereotyping I’m talking about.)
The most upsetting thing about Welcome to the Infant Freebase is that it can’t be written off as a complete miss. One of the closing songs on the record, “Retro Man” has the big, ballsy feeling of a mid-career Oasis, complete with the get-down guitar drops and the arena-worthy chorus. When you’re not distracted by the goofy, weird lyrics, some of the songs have a warm uniqueness to them — like “Rest in Piece” with its ominous, winding rhythms or the building from verse to verse in “The Homo Habilis Blues”. But still, that’s not quite enough.
It’s very possible that I’m missing something here — some metanarrative that writes this all in a language that works and makes sense. But I doubt that this is the kind of album deserving of a footnote. Most likely, it’s just an irony-free mistake, plain and simple, that I have trouble translating into my own cultural context. Unless, of course, they’re all certifiably crazy.