What does it sound like?:
After forty years, most acts reveal their true colours. On this release, Pere Ubu play an abstract, mutant blues, almost as though Howlin’ Wolf hadn’t originated in the swampland of Mississippi but had emerged, smelling of diesel and fumes, from the decayed industrial wasteland of Cleveland Ohio. It’s their seventeenth studio album, their third since 2013. There have been various breakups and reformations, the one constant being vocalist, David Thomas. His yelps, growls and squeals have variously been backed by proto-punk guitar riffs, bizarre synthesiser noise, free jazz clarinet, a polished, commercial pop and simple acoustic guitar.
Eccentric is the adjective most applied to Pere Ubu, followed by bizarre. When Thomas worked with Richard and Linda Thompson, Linda expressed a desire to sing like him. She wasn’t talking about his ability to hit the notes but his complete lack of inhibition. The notions swirling around Thomas’s brain are not usual, tending towards the abstract and the absurd. On track two, Funk 49, he helpfully reminds us, “You better not have these thoughts in your head.” He has an obsessive streak, writing countless songs featuring birds, the US interstate highway system or Brian Wilson. He believes art is meant to reveal secrets and preserve them. Sometimes, the listener can have too much information. There is a reason why there aren’t many covers of Pere Ubu songs. Only David Thomas can convincingly inhabit them. For this LP, he sings about death, loneliness and sex. He howls with lust and begs to be held close. It’s doubtful the object of his desires is impressed, unless she gets off being pursued by what sounds like a homicidal pervert.
The music inspired by his lyrics is not usual either, but at its heart, the band love crappy pop music and noise. This band is hot, tight and full of power. They have three guitars, a clarinet and two synthesisers, each trying their hardest to be the loudest. On balance, the bassist wins. 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo is one of the more accessible Pere Ubu albums, full of coruscating riffs, lashings of energy and moody atmospherics. They even find time for some flamenco hand clapping on Plan From Frag 9.
Keen observers will be raising an eyebrow at the mention of The Blues. At one point, Thomas believed it was a form of imperialism to take from another culture. He has no such sensitivities any more. Howl is as accurate a homage to Howlin’ Wolf as is possible, The Healer sees too much for too long, much like John Lee Hooker and Red Eyed Blues actually has ‘Blues’ in the title. Mostly, in the latter half of the album when the frenetic pace slows down, the songs are lyrical rather than narrative, expressing feelings in their own peculiar way and are melancholy due to problems with love. All these qualities are characteristic of The Blues. Twelve tracks done and dusted in less than forty minutes, exactly how an album should be.
Pere Ubu have never had a commercial hit. There were two albums in the late eighties when they sounded more polished. On The Tennement Years, the tunes are actually catchy. Stephen Hague produced Cloudland, making it seem possible that they could grace the charts. Pixies and Nirvana managed it, why not Cloudland? In the end, it turned out like The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, full of great singles but ignored by the record buying public. 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo may well suffer the same fate. Nevertheless, this is easily the best rock album of the year and yet another sensational Pere Ubu release to add to a long list.
What does it all *mean*?
Pere Ubu are still alive and kicking. Indeed, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo is their third great album in a row.
Goes well with…
Strange religious beliefs, a determination to be true to yourself, an ageing body, a young mind, fresh orange juice.
Might suit people who like…
Pere Ubu are unique but if loud and wild guitar music is your thing, try them.