Due to my strong personal convictions I wish to stress that this record in no way endorses a belief in the occult
IN A DIFFERENT world, Neil Cicerega is one of the world’s biggest stars. The same world where Hollywood is about to score big with its 23rd Dune sequel, where we’ve been locked in cultural stasis since around 1997, so first-edition Goosebumps are selling on the black market for millions and the world’s banks are being run on supercomputers that began as ROM hacks for E.T on the Atari 2600 and started having delusions of grandeur.
Neil has been making music under various aliases since the turn on the millennium, when he was a barely a teenager; releasing a new album almost every year until 2008, the still-excellent, still-bonkers View-Monster under the Lemon Demon moniker. But that may not be what you know him for.
If you had an internet connection starting around 2006, it’s probable you’ve been exposed to some, if not all, of Neil’s work. Potter Puppet Pals, that turns Harry into an arrogant felt jock and Voldemort into a hammy pantomime villain that plants pipe bombs in Hogwarts? The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny, the biggest hit in the age of flash video second only to Homestar Runner? Brodyquest, the tale of the best day of Adrian Brody’s life?
It’s clear that not only does Cicierega have a good handle on the culture of the early 21st century, but knows what makes that culture tick, and the tunes that stick in its head. Eight full years after his last LP comes Spirit Phone, a realisation of his music’s potential, and a weird-rock masterpiece.
The unashamed weirdness of Spirit Phone truly cannot be understated, nor should it be. Oingo Boingo, Devo, They Might Be Giants, and the little-known but massively charming Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club are all fair and accurate comparisons but it’s hard to imagine even some of them producing music as dense and that flows as well as some of appears on Spirit Phone. Where songs on previous albums like “Ultimate Showdown” and the endlessly cheery “Fine” were breezy and absurd, they were comparably light on instrumentation. Cicierega has spent the time between Lemon Demon albums making the absolute best versions of every instrumental track, the diligence obvious from the opener, “Lifetime Achievement Award” (about resurrecting dead celebrities), “Touch-Tone Telephone”, a passionate hit from a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist, and “Cabinet Man”, the tale of a carnivorous arcade machine. Many more straight-faced, multi-million productions this year will struggle for a better opening three than this.
There’s a whole other album of extras, too; “Angry People” is a hyperactive belter hidden away in there, with followers of Cicierega’s internet profiles bearing witness to its evolution in a way that’s usually reserved for after an album is out – and there are some demos included here too, versions of the full songs that sound slower and more downbeat than their final editions, showing their progression from Cicierega’s tone at the end of the decade to a faster, more dense, more confident style of instrumentation and lyricism.
The top of Spirit Phone is the strongest, with the middle section populated with nonetheless stellar tracks that have existed in various forms for a few years like “As Your Father I Expressly Forbid It”, “When He Died”, a previous single and one of the most revelatory in terms of its theme of death, and “Reaganomics” about, what else, the greatest day of former President Ronald Reagan’s life. Along with “Touch-Tone Telephone,” mid-point “Ancient Aliens” also revels in the weirdness in a way that is expresses in a grand way musically, filling out a second half that deals with the banality of domesticity, architecture, and
Cicierega sends his synthesisers and vocals through the funhouse mirrors and back again but also knows what to do with his quieter moments, the vocoder effective in “No Eyed Girl” and “Soft Fuzzy Man,” from the point of view of a seductive but intangible cloud of matter. Closer “Spiral of Ants” is hypnotic, epic, and about ants.