The Robot Ate Me
couple years back, I traveled to Poland to visit the newly marked graves of my ancestors who perished in the Holocaust. The sights at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Warsaw were predictably staggering, opening floodgates of tears for a few members of my party, who experienced cathartic revelations simply by seeing these monuments to spiritual adversity in the face of inexplicable evil. For me it wasn’t that easy; my emotional outpouring was muted, or perhaps nonexistent. I saw, I wrote, I listened, I experienced, but I never conventionally responded.
Long drives between bustling cities and secluded forests, train rides from Krakow to Warsaw, left ample time for reflection. As per usual, I turned to my headphones to provide some sort of solace. I remember how seemingly featherweight—at least when compared to my daily visions of unspeakable atrocity—albums by Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists, both only tangentially related to World War II, only fully clicked in my time of emotional desperation, providing voices of musical reason that powerfully contrasted with my own silence.
The Robot Ate Me, like those aforementioned artists, seems more buoyant than weighty. Hailing from sunny San Diego, with a singer who drawls in an annoying, bored-slacker lilt, they seem unlikely candidates for sprawling, experimental music with pretensions at Importance. And yet, On Vacation is one of the most self-consciously Important musical statements I’ve heard, a two-disc concept record about genocide, Jesus, and ditching work, of which only 5000 copies have been pressed.
Almost completely inscrutable, On Vacation accurately captures the mindset of a man confronting a morbid moment in history on his own terms. For all its faults, it might have made the perfect soundtrack to my journey through Poland. The music is awkward and unbalanced, a melange of cello, saxophone, piano and intermittent percussion. Ryland Bouchard’s lyrics are wry, ironic and envelope-pushing, most notably on the first disc, which compares and contrasts Christianity with the Nazi regime. The brilliant opening track, “The Genocide Ball”, is the musical equivalent of a Guy Maddin film, with Bouchard crooning (“Come put your shoes on/let’s go out tonight/there’s a genocide ball to attend”) with medicated insouciance over grainy, retro, black-and-white big-band backing. The album never equals this high point, but the next track “Jesus and Hitler” is a pointed lyrical provocation, imagining the titular characters making love in the back of a taxicab.
What does it all mean? The second disc, a far less dour affair, adopts the album title in a more literal fashion, depicting a character breaking from work to take a vacation, fall in love and finally declare: “I’m alright down here”. Is it a fever dream, a man’s mind on vacation from its body, weaving an incoherent pastiche of evil, institutionalized religion, and product placement? Or is the vacation on the second disc, full of earthly pleasures that seem so mundane and gauche on the first disc (see: “I Slept Through The Holocaust”).
On Vacation is an album I rarely listen to, and often hate passionately—it’s unpleasant, pretentious, schizophrenic and kind of powerful. This is highly personal music of a specific emotional purpose—the sound of looking at mass graves and wanting to tell a joke—and I fear I simply found it too late.
Reviewed by: Akiva Gottlieb
Reviewed on: 2004-06-01