It’s 1998 and after countless albums, The Residents go back to the beginning…right to the beginning. Subtitled ‘Curious Stories from the Bible’, “Wormwood” is not, as you may expect, a vitriolic series of broadsides against Christianity nor even religion in general but rather a celebration of some of the overlooked eye-popping moments which forever live in the shadow of more righteous miracles, good deeds and perceived wisdom. Instead we get rollicking tales of murder, dismemberment, filthy sex, incest, rape, human sacrifice, personal grudges and a God who was at peak ‘complete arsehole’ stage in his career. All but three of the 20 tracks of the original album (here bundled together with – yikes! – 8 extra discs of material) are from the Old Testament, back when God was YHWH and appeared in visions seemingly to only to give people minding their own business incredibly horrible tasks, only for the conclusion to be a celestial shoulder shrug and some dead bodies and surprise pregnancies.
Musically, we, thankfully, have moved on a little from the nadir of the band’s traipse through string-thin MIDI sounds and experiments with technology which were either too advanced for the listening audience at the time to fully experience or were quickly superseded by improved software. That’s not to say we’re back in the good old days of cut-up tape and unrepeatable oddities from a band that revelled in delivering strangeness which felt like it came from another dimension. As the band readily admit themselves, it’s over-produced – great in the sense that it sounds dazzling in remastered form but less so in that it is incredibly slick – angular, yes but precise in a way which is oddly distracting, especially for an album where the subject matter really pushes on the story-telling.
Another very noticeable change here are the number of guests, in particular, singers, on the album. There is logic here, of course – different stories and books of the Bible being ‘told’ by different voices and in that sense, it works, the tracks moving along just as you might imagine short stories in a compendium. However, coupled with the jarringly crisp production, it sometimes feels like a project The Residents guested on, rather than they being the fulcrum. At its best, such as tracks like “How to Get a Head”, the vocals of Molly Harvey add a new, extremely welcome dimension, ultimately standing out as some of the band’s most commercial work; by the end of the album, the flipping between vocals and the occasional overly repetitive anti-melody has become quite exhausting, though, in fairness, who would read the Bible in one sitting?
The songs lyrically are utterly irresistible. Were it not for the fact that the band includes ‘study notes’ in the album packaging, it is sometimes difficult to believe some of the tales are indeed Biblical. “They Are the Meat” tells the story of Ezekiel, ordered by God to eat bread baked only using human dung as fuel and to lie on his left side for thirteen months, leading to hallucinations. In the likely event you feel this is a somewhat skewed interpretation, they even include the relevant passages so you can look it up yourself. Similarly unhinged tales see murder by a tent peg being driven into someone’s skull (“Tent Peg in the Temple”); Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and having sex with him (“Fire Fall”); “Spilling the Seed”, a delirious story of an inheritance battle which results in a man masturbating onto the ground and God killing him; “Hanging By his Hair”, the power struggle between King David and his son, Absalom, leads to the latter fornicating wildly on the roof of the palace with his father’s many concubines, only to get his hair tangled in the branches of a tree as he attempts to make his escape – his father’s troops torture and kill him whilst he is prone. This doesn’t even cover the tracks about genital mutilation.
As you may imagine, it is the subject matter which carries Wormwood into being regarded as a very notable Residents release – musically, it’s not their best, though is certainly something approaching a return to form. They seem rejuvenated not only by having such a clear concept to work with but also with a raft of musicians who have a clear understanding of the band’s world but are still canny enough to bring their own skills to the party, without fear of simply fitting straight into the mould. What this box set shows is that whilst the original recording may have its flaws and have dated prematurely in terms of its production, the material was amongst the band’s strongest for years.
Discs two and three are given over to “Early Worms”, works in progress of the tracks which would ultimately form Wormwood. Even at these stages, a great deal of the material supersedes the album material, would a greater feeling of unease and dread, as well as some surprisingly crunchy guitar riffing. Perhaps the music was considered too strident to squeeze such involved lyrics and drama into, as many of these advanced sketches are purely instrumental. Those with vocals, such as the early version of “Judas Saves”, here entitled “Jesus Saves” are impressively different and offer a fascinating insight into how a band as unique as The Residents take the kernel of an idea through the various stages of development.
Discs four and five cover the celebrated 1998 Fillmore show, available in its entirety for the first time. Shorn of studio polish, the Wormwood tracks take on a completely new dimension, becoming more intense, conversational pieces, as opposed to evangelical bluster. Tracks like “Burn, Baby, Burn” and “Fire Fall” are truly chilling and are some of the best live recordings by the band I’ve heard. As with the studio tracks, none of the songs come across as The Residents mocking religion of any kind, nor even asking you to form an opinion yourself – they are bizarre, fascinating stories which have been available to us for centuries, yet have passed the majority of us by. For the benefit of the fans, the encores feature the likes of “Smelly Tongues” and “Picnic Boy”.
Disc six is given over to “Roadworms”, a live-in-the-studio album which is proof enough that the band knew that the material was fundamentally really strong but that the original album release had misfired somehow. It’s certainly possible to take “Roadworms” on its own merits and keep “Wormwood” entirely separate but the listening experience is definitely enhanced by understanding the strengths and failings of both. Inspired by the live performances of the record, many sampled in this set, of course, it’s certainly pacier and the urgency of the electric guitar plays perfectly against the church organ on “Fire Fall”. Both Molly and Mr Skull have really hit their stride vocally, perhaps given more confidence by audience reception at live shows. Mr Skull was making his first recorded appearance here, having featured on-stage quite frequently over the years. The epic performance of “Judas Saves” is scintillating. “Roadworms” adds the human emotion that the stories had always demanded and casts new light on songs which may have been initially muddled in the mix.
Discs seven and eight celebrate the live incarnation of “Wormwood” yet further, scrubbing up a two-act performance from their European tour in 1999. The final disc, “Woodworms”, collects together assorted studio out-takes and live performances from as late as 2014. As you might imagine, the box set itself is beautifully put together, with extensive sleeve-notes, stunning individual sleeves and, if I may say, a nice inky smell when you open it. If you’re picking and choosing which of these Residents releases to buy, this should definitely go on the ‘yes’ pile.