The Residents have always been inventive, but they engage with the destructive on their new “historically accurate” album The Ghost of Hope, about train wrecks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Life is a lonely train/Wracked by God,” intones the singer/narrator of “Horrors of the Night,” paralleling the statement of a little boy who attributed his escape to God. While all this sets a grim tone for the album, it’s a highly listenable set of soundscapes.
Like crushed train cars telescoping into one another, the seven tracks (wordplay is inevitable, I guess) fuse song and soundtrack-style music, contemporary newspaper accounts and musique concrète, into a gumbo of “you are there” tone poems. A lavishly printed accompanying booklet tells the stories dramatized by the songs, with photos and brief narratives.
The musical styles range from warped folk and country (“The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918”) to electronic (“A Shroud of Flames”) to mope-electronica accelerating into chaotic doom-rock (“Death Harvest”) to soundtrack-cinematic (“Killed at Crossing”).
Circus music nibbles around the edges of the soundtrack to “The Great Circus Trainwreck of 1918,” another true story, here narrated by a surviving clown: “Today we tried to do a show, the place was mostly filled. But all of us ain’t here, so shit ain’t working well.”
Appropriately enough, there are no lyrics to “Train vs. Elephant,” about an 1894 encounter between a wild elephant attempting to defend his family or territory against a newfangled metal monster in Malaysia. Otherwise, ringing images abound: survivor William Winsor “with his head stuck in the ground and his feet in the air” (“Death Harvest”); “circled by the snow, two misshapen masses as black as Satan’s soul” (“A Shroud of Flames”); “Mrs. Folwell’s brains were scattered down the track” (“Killed at Crossing”).
One of the most interesting stories is the intentional train crash known as “The Crash at Crush,” an 1896 publicity stunt for an ailing railroad that turned into a horror for spectators, killing three and maiming many more when the crashing locomotives’ boilers unexpectedly blew. The fact is, this collection shows that train disasters have taken countless forms over the decades. I can easily imagine a sequel devoted to more recent accidents involving trains hauling flammable fuel or toxic chemicals.
Though I’ve never seen the group perform live, I’ve been following the “art collective” known as The Residents on and off since the early 1980s, with the Mark of the Mole and Commercial albums. The latter consisted of 40 songs, each exactly one minute long, advertising non-existent products. Back then a part of the group’s allure was the mystery of who these guys actually were, and amazingly they have sustained their anonymity to some degree throughout the decades (though sleuthing has revealed likely answers). Narration from “A Shroud of Flames” resonates with The Residents’ trademarks anonymity, and their eyeball masks too: “Conductor Townsend said,/Peering through a mask,/Revealing nothing but/His eyeballs as he rasped…”
But the most soul-punching, if ungrammatical, moment may be the end of “The Great Circus Trainwreck of 1918,” when the music dies away and the narrator, a clown who survived, stands at the mass grave of his fallen comrades and “perplexed and wondered some/About God’s Golden Grace.” Who can blame him? The only grace in these stories is in the actions of the people who try to help when disaster strikes. Today’s history lesson, brought to you by The Residents.