Analog Baroque / American Patchwork
ere's the thing about Momus: Nick Currie—one-time Leonard Cohen disciple, synth-pop pornographer, lawsuit magnet, self-described "Nippoholic," and hero of every budding LiveJournal political philosopher—seems incapable of settling into an artistic rut, careful to drape each album in a different conceptual experiment or style of instrumentation. But for all the stylistic gadflying, a Momus song remains a Momus song: puns, Marxism, and sexual cruelty. Nick Currie is at once the most adventurous and most conservative of artists, finding a hundred different ways to say one thing.
It's for this reason that there's something in Momus' protestations that he's not as exclusively lyrical a songwriter as most critics, fans and haters alike, assume: whether you enjoy the fastidious assemblage of lit-crit and dirty-talking that is a Momus lyric or spend your Saturdays baiting him on ILM, the only surprises a new album from him might hold for you are musical. So Ocky Milk—Momus' latest album and the most obviously influenced by the aforementioned Nippoholicism—surprises not with its reliably Momusian lyrics, which wind their whispering, deadpan way through the songs with the usual decent ratio of wicked metaphor to collegiate incoherence, but instead with its uncharacteristically focused and atmospheric instrumentation. This is a fuller, warmer record than we're used to from Momus, and the lyrics are neither its best nor its most important attribute.
Currie makes this clear from the start: the clattering, woozy chant of "Moop Bears" opens the album on an agreeably disorienting note, keeping the listener from being spoiled by the two relatively straightforward synth-pop tracks that follow. One of these, "The Birdcatcher," is a menacingly witty patchwork of Disney references, lyrically dense, pleasantly catchy, eminently mixtapeable, and in the end less interesting than the following track: "Nervous Heartbeat," which marks the template for most of the rest of Ocky Milk by floating and swooning through a monochrome starscape with little interest in what Momus is saying, content to caress the song with an only half-English libretto sung more tenderly than anything he's done since he discovered irony. The intimate curl in Momus' voice—that hushed liquid lilt, ever-present but usually employed to jack up his songs' archness quotient—is used on Ocky Milk to sing real lullabies, real spirituals, and real songs, dissolving the disagreeable sourness that plagues the third or fourth listen to the average Momus album.
The occasionally beautiful abstraction of "Nervous Heartbeat" is taken to extremes elsewhere: "Devil Mask, Buddha Mind" is mostly Momus chanting, a task for which he's surprisingly well-suited, and submerged in the sprawling, atmospheric middle third of Ocky Milk one doesn't find oneself longing for dissertations on oral sex as much as anticipated. The songs here cast off the literary-songwriter shackles Currie's worn for going on two decades, playing much less with philosophy and language and much more with tone, stillness, and that voice, a versatile instrument not only underrated but underused.
In fact Currie does things with his voice here he's never done, most notably on "Count Ossie in China," where the familiarity of Space Invaders noises over stuttering drum machines is undermined by the rastafarian Tom Waits voice Momus insists upon assuming. There is little that can be said about this song besides this: your fondness for it depends, possibly entirely, on your hypothetical fondness for the impromptu tracheotomy Momus appears to have undergone. Almost odder, the penultimate "I Refuse to Die" is an utterly incongruous exercise in winkingly homosexual urbanity, sounding a little like a holdover from Momus' own Little Red Songbook and a little more like one from 69 Love Songs—it's pure music hall, and along with "The Birdcatcher," "Frilly Military," and technological snowscape "Hang Low," provides Ocky Milk's entry-point for the more traditional Momus fan, the one whose interest in abstract romanticism and Oriental soundscapes is merely tepid.
But for the other kinds—the ones who are more interested in Momus' musical development than in his statically reliable lyricism, or the ones this guy's always left a little cold—Ocky Milk is supremely welcome. It's as rich and enjoyable an album as Nick Currie's made in years: warm, funny, arch in most of the right places, made with an admirable integrity and a genuine playfulness—and, at long last, surprising.