“Merdre.” This single growled word introduces the latest album from post punk legends Pere Ubu. It also, not coincidentally, sent audiences into a riotous eruption upon its utterance as the opening word at the premier performance of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi in 1896. It didn’t take much to send audiences off the deep end in those days and, following another riot at the second performance, Ubu Roi was banned.
Jarry’s play not only created a launchpad for the Theatre of the Absurd, but it also provided Pere Ubu with their name. David Thomas and his Ubu cohorts are now repaying their debt to Jarry with this musical presentation, which itself is gleaned from a theatre performance of the material (at that time known as Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi), and the radio version that followed.
Long Live Pere Ubu is much more than merely a concept album. It is a performance that is brilliantly realised and executed. The ambitious nature of the project and the scope and history of the material from which it is formed could have easily led to a fumbled effort, but somehow Pere Ubu pull it off with considerable style.
Make no mistake, this is an album that requires an awful lot of investment of time and understanding from the listener to fully appreciate the scale of what has been achieved. But it is more than worth it.
In terms of story, Ubu Roi is a profane butchering of Macbeth and Hamlet with a slight sprinkling of Richard III thrown in for good measure. Ubu murders the king at the urging of his wife, and goes on to rule in a particularly unpleasant manner. He appears to have a desire for a big sombrero, and obviously taxes everything that moves, and everything that doesn’t (Ubu declares that the dead should be taxed at one point). It’s a wonderful satire on greed and power, as well as being a glorious send-up of the Shakespearean canon. With the current state of global economics, and distrust in world leaders apparently rife, it’s perhaps pertinent that such a play gets a more contemporary reading.
Just as a riot occurred following the announcement of the word “Merdre” at the play’s premiere, so Pere Ubu create a musical riot after Thomas’ growled introduction. Although the album is split into tracks it defies reason to speak of this work as anything other than a whole. After all, there’s not exactly anything here that’s been included to appease those in search of singles material. From the Ubu Overture onwards, ideas are spat out, explored and thrown to one side; as the story progresses, so too must the accompaniment.
There are plenty of classic Ubu flourishes to be found, but the almost jazz inflected blues of many of the “songs” hark back to Captain Beefheart at their most aggressive. Thomas’ rumble has a definite Tom Waits edge to it, while the clever use of electronics and percussion create a dense, if chaotic atmosphere.
A special mention must go to Sarah Jane Morris, whose fantastic turn in the role of Mere Ubu is enormously creepy. Rarely has a vocal performance created such an unpleasant mood on an album. That she makes such an impression is quite a commendation, because the overriding ambience of this album is unpleasantness. It frequently invokes a feeling of nausea and unease as the album follows Ubu through his murderous story. Try listening to continuous belching on Less Said The Better without finding a the bile slowly rising in your throat.
The creepy lounge jazz interspersed with whirring electronics on The Story So Far induces as much delirium in the listener as is being experienced by the story’s protagonist. But while this is, in the main, unnerving stuff, there are occasional flashes of almost pop-like passages. Bring Me The Head has an almost catchy refrain at times (although it is driven by some swirling samples and taut wiry guitar stabs), and the almost fluffy military stomp of March Of Greed provides a curious source of relief. But it’s the gibberish chants on Slowly I Turn that provide the most childish of thrills, even when coupled with Thomas’ snarled exposition. “Ting, ting tatting ting,” indeed.
Long Live Pere Ubu is a challenging, difficult and incredibly rewarding listen. Uncomfortable at times, but always controlled, intelligent and due to the subject matter, often outrightly childish. It represents a considerable achievement both musically and intellectually. Pere Ubu deserve widespread recognition for a wonderful piece of work that needs to be heard by as many people as possible.