The Residents exist outside of time, place, and scene. They’re outsiders. It may seem like their music evokes camp sometimes, but they are unbelievably serious about that camp. They may seem to be feigning horror, but they just really like those strange tones. Furthermore, they have been at it for over 40 years, but they haven’t changed much. Queue up a playlist of Resident tunes throughout their career and put it on random, and you will be hard-pressed to determine the difference between 2017 Residents and 1985 Residents. The Residents’ new album The Ghost of Hope exists firmly in the band’s worldview — weird, insular, and quite particular about the details. They’re still weird and they still exist on the extreme ends of the left side of the dial.
First off, let’s clearly frame this record: it is about train wrecks, and not of the metaphorical kind. It is literally a concept album about train wrecks. Each song has a specific narrative, and each one details some kind of event that involves a tragedy and a train. If all this sounds like too much for you at this point, you would be forgiven if you quit reading now. As far as the concept goes, the album holds so strong to this conceit that it can drag itself down at times and get in the way of its music. It occasionally seems that once the band has really began to explode musically, they dial it all down to a basic rhythm section to allow space for the speak-singing of the narrative. Although, as a mostly wordless song like “Train vs. Elephant” illustrates, this album works best when the band is able to build upon the music, as opposed to making space for the words.
Musically, the album sounds like the Residents. That means that the synths are dark sounding, the vocals are a little distorted, and the instruments sound somehow in-tune and out-of-tune simultaneously. The song constructions are typical of the Residents as well. They have a tendency to change on the fly to accent the lyrics. To this reviewer, it has the flavor of show tunes, meaning that the songs change often and intend to reflect the mood of the characters and events within. Within just one song, you may hear sampled train sounds, distorted saxophone spurts, longs stretches of ambient synth, a guitar freak out, and a chorus chant. It works, but only if you accept that this is dramatic and theatrical music, not ‘rock’.
As much at the album is about the narrative, though, there is something happening beneath. The Residents have always been good at hiding their themes behind bombastic curtains, but they do have a point here. The Ghost of Hope is about our endless, restless search for bigger, better, and faster. All progression leaves tragedy in its wake. The Residents may have a weird way of saying it, but when they chant, “The Ghost of Hope says ‘no'”, we get it — everything good has a dark underside. Who better than such a weird, theatric band to help us understand this?