There are few if any bands that made such a significant contribution to the nihilistic and dizzily creative first wave of post-punk experimentalism as Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, the mighty PiL apart, of course. Like most Brits, my first exposure to this unique band was via John Peel and the unsettling masterpiece that was The Modern Dance, and everything flowed from there. I admit I have not kept up with their not-so-vast but perfectly formed discography over the ensuing 41 years and 20 or so albums, but I have frequently dipped my toe in the scuzzy oil-filmed waters of this post-industrial existential adventure along the way.
Named after the Raymond Chandler novel, everything about The Long Goodbye says this is “it” for the band. As David Thomas says, “This wraps up every song and story that Pere Ubu has been telling in different ways for the past forty plus years. It is one definitive hour that provides the answers to the questions we’ve been asking and delivers it up into what I consider the definitive destination.” These “answers” are of course, cryptic, and left to the listener to unravel. Simple pop music this is not.
Given the fraught gestation of the album, which came about when Pere Ubu raison-d’etre David Thomas suffered a serious illness in 2017, one that forced the abrupt end of a tour of the USA, and during the treatment of which he “decided the only thing he could do when faced with such disorder… (was) create music.” Thomas “determined there would be one last album, and considering everything, it must be definitive.”
Thomas laid down the basic tracks during “one month of relentless work”, and the end result is quite remarkable, given the circumstances. The CD version comes with a bonus disc from a gig in Paris where the band played the entire album bookended by past favourites and obscurities. Chris Cutler of Henry Cow fame re-joined the band for this outing, and the whole thing crackles with a visceral, almost desperate energy. The live CD makes this set worth your hard-earned alone!
Back to the main course – The Marlowe of this Long Goodbye exists as a metaphor for Thomas/Ubu, suffering an existential crisis as he trails a disappeared only friend, and waits “for the clock to stop ticking”. The sense of urgency is palpable, as the search stumbles headlong into the void, Thomas wailing “Can I get a witness” during Road Is A Preacher. All grist to the mill for Pere Ubu, it seems.
David Thomas’ darkly poetic lyrics have lost none of their snarl, “One more spark on a sea of dung” he growls on Flicking Cigarettes At The Sun, and The Long Goodbye finds its author still there, grubbing around in the underbelly of suburban America. The ongoing theme of isolation in Thomas’s lyrics remains a recurrent theme. “One voice you don’t wanna be alienated from is yourself” he says in the spoken-word monologue to Fortunate Son, and later “I’m looking out the window at America, and I start to cry”, then finding that Skidrow-on-Sea, naturally enough, is “rotten to the core”. This is not a happy album, although it ends with the atypically contented Lovely Day, and it will not be what you’ll hear on the pop radio. But then would you expect that? Pere Ubu’s brief nervous flirtation with the mainstream in the very late ’80s and early ’90s never sat quite right, after all.
For all that, in the press release Thomas concludes with “We live in desperate towns and we keep on going regardless of the stench. It’s not often you’re gonna find the answers, if ever. But here is pop music the way it should sound.” Probably only in his head, but I for one am glad of his dyspeptic worldview, as good art sometimes demands a bit of work from its intended audience. Although it is the norm in these homogenised days, why should everything be served to an audience in handy easy to digest pre-programmed, autotuned chunks?
The longest track here, The Road Ahead, is a dislocated travelogue that heads towards Satisfied City, a metaphor for Thomas’ and Pere Ubu’s journey’s end. “I hope the end comes quickly”, says Thomas, a tangible note of hope in his voice. Given that he’s still with us in mid-summer 2019, and an album launch gig is planned on Friday 13th September (no signs and portents there, then!) at Bush Hall, thankfully that rare glimpse of optimism on album closer Lovely Day where “everything is as it should be” seems to have paid off.
I haven’t mentioned the music yet, have I? Well, as Thomas composed most of this on his own using synths and drum machines, and, oddly, a melodeon, (later augmenting with guitar and analog synth) under no doubt fraught and painful circumstances, the austere nature of the tracks then being sent to rest of the mostly long-term Ubu-collaborating musicians involved, there is a suitably “other” feeling to it all, like it is not quite of this universe. Spurred along by several synth whooshes, clicks and burrs, a theremin, and Darryl Boon’s clarinet atop the usual guitar/bass/drums backline, the album is recognisable as Pere Ubu’s oddly alien take on this contrary beast we call rock’n’roll. Which of course, is exactly as it should be, latterly “on a lovely day by the sea”, which is how the album concludes, on that rare note of optimism.
Au revoir, then, rather than goodbye, one hopes.
01. What I Heard On The Pop Radio (3:48)
02. Marlowe (1:51)
03. Flicking Cigarettes At The Sun (3:20)
04. Road Is A Preacher (3:05)
05. Who Stole The Signpost? (3:27)
06. The World (As We Can Know It) (3:25)
07. Fortunate Son (3:02)
08. The Road Ahead (9:24)
09. Skidrow-On-Sea (2:38)
10. Lovely Day (4:07)
Time – 38:15
01. Intro (1:13)
02. Heart Of Darkness (4:26)
03. What I Heard On The Pop Radio (3:43)
04. Marlowe (6:08)
05. Flicking Cigarettes At The Sun (5:06)
06. Road Is A Preacher (3:17)
07. Who Stole The Signpost? (3:35)
08. The World (As We Can Know It) (4:03)
09. Fortunate Son (3:57)
10. The Road Ahead (11:26)
11. Skidrow-On-Sea (3:58)
12. Lovely Day (6:02)
13. Road To Utah (5:24)
14. Running Dry (4:11)
15. Highwaterville (3:28)
Time – 70:05
Total Time – 108:20
David Thomas – Vocals, Analog Synthesizers, Melodeon, Drum Program
Keith Molinè – Electric Guitar
Gagarin – Digital Synthesizers, Drum Program
Robert Wheeler – Theremin, Analog Synthesizer
Darryl Boon – Clarinet
Michele Temple – Electric & Upright Bass
P. O. Jørgens – Drum Kit, Percussion
David Thomas – Vocals
Keith Molinè – Electric Guitar and Bass
Gagarin – Digital Synthesizers, Drum Program
Chris Cutler – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Date of Release: 12th July 2019