The Residents – The Big Bubble [Ralph Records, 1985]

The Residents - The Big BubbleI’ve been very into The Residents since the 7th grade. I own many (if not most) of their albums, and have played all of their CD-ROM’s (remember CD-ROM’s?). I feel like I have a good understanding of their music. Of all of their albums, I rank The Big Bubble as the most disturbing.

This is due mostly to the inescapable vocal stylization on the album. Sure, the guttural screams of their later album, The King and I, are more aggressive and terrifying, but the bizarre, primitivist singing on The Big Bubble is on a level all its own.

Think of the vocal scoop that begins so many of Elvis Prestley’s sung phrases. It’s like his voice is starting at total rest and jumping up to grab the right note. Now, consider that vocal scoop as a little gremlin that lives in an underground cave. The vocals on The Big Bubble sound like someone channeling the spirit of that little gremlin in a 40-minute exorcism.

Considering how much The Residents love Elvis (The King and I is a whole album of Elvis covers), this is not really so much of a stretch. Though The Residents primarily use synthesizers, there is a sparseness on The Big Bubble that is vaguely similar to the production values of 50’s rock acts like Elvis or Buddy Holly. This may seem far-fetched, but it makes sense when one takes into account the context in which The Big Bubble was made.

The Big Bubble is part four of The Mole Trilogy, which was supposed to be The Residents’ big scale “operatic” production. However, financial complications caused several members to leave the group. Shortly after, The Big Bubble came out. One can hear the influence of this personal strife in the music.

You can find the narrative of The Mole Show on The Residents’ website, so I won’t go too much in depth here. The Big Bubble is a concept album by a fictional band speaking in an outlawed language. The members of the group are Moles, who have been more-or-lessed enslaved by the Piggies. Their native tongue has been outlawed by the Piggies, so in the Mole Show world, it is a big thing to release an album in that mad, glossalalia language.

This is where the 50’s rock analogy should start to make sense. A concept album about a fictional rebel band in an imaginary culture, bravely and raucously defying an oppressive society – a sort of alien rock n’ roll.

As a listener, you are constantly unsure of whether they really mean it or are just acting. Is that guy singing like that to get a rise, or has he totally lost his mind in the darkest depths of a 15 year drug trip? I would certainly count these sorts of questions as ideologically central to much of The Residents’ absurdism. That’s what makes their music so captivating.

To call the vocals on any particular Residents album strange is a redundant statement. Honestly, they’re all a bit strange; that’s part of the point. The Big Bubble is where they started really exploring this particular vocal wailing, which seems to have been incubating since their ’77 album Fingerprince, and which got darker and darker until it became the style on The King and I.

Often the most profound moment is when an artist first wades into a strange new world, dragging their recollections of the known one behind them. I certainly wouldn’t call The Big Bubble The Residents’ masterpiece; I’m more into earlier works like Meet The Residents or Third Reich n’ Roll. However, It’s a bold statement, artistically and emotionally, and definitely elicits strong reactions from listeners.

My CD copy of The Big Bubble also includes the 3-part song cycle, Safety is The Cootie-Wootie. Cootie-Wootie is a sort of dark lullaby for children. It’s similar to Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, but channeled through the alternate universe of the Residents. It’s much closer to the musical style of Cube-E than The Mole Show, and is obviously not a part of the statement made by The Big Bubble.

Daniel Corral

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