What happens when you are an innovator that is ahead of their time, but the times finally catch up to you?
The answer is simple: go commercial!
San Francisco’s The Residents faced this conundrum as they entered the 1980s. Their blend of sardonic humor and experimental fervor directly influenced the burgeoning post-punk scene, and you would be hard pressed to deny between them and Devo, Negativland, Pere Ubu, and countless more. Furthermore, their previous album Eskimo found them diving into more serious sonic territory, resulting in a magnum opus that sounded nothing like their previous work and elevated them to a level amongst ambient and progressive peers such as Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. That they were quite willing to take the accolades for their previous album into consideration and go in a completely opposite direction isn’t necessarily a sign of a contrarian heart; it simply illustrates how important it was for them to not make the same record twice.
Commercial Album is a satirical record with an amazing philosophy behind it. It consists of 40 one minute songs that you, the listener, are required to transform into pop hits. On the cover art, they detail the philosophy about what makes a pop song, ultimately determining that repetitiveness is redundancy, and that if you simply boiled the essence of the song to one minute, you could birth a pop song by simply repeating that one minute two or three times. Thus, Commercial Album is pop music dehydrated for home production, a veritable self-contained pop Top 40 that you can manipulate as you see fit.
As novel (or asinine, depending upon your level of cynicism) of a concept Commercial Album may be, one should not make the mistake of assuming these little snippets are simply tossed off trifles. Although there are simply too many to individually rate, the quality control was actually quite high. Considering the group worked on this for well over a year, it should be taken as seriously by the listener as it was the creator. Even though they are brief, applying the tactic works for a majority of them. Some are fun and funny, some are dark and brooding, and some sounds like wonderful pop songs that deserve to be fleshed out. What also keep the album fresh is the appearance of outside talent, including then-undisclosed cameos from Brian Eno (“The Coming Of The Crow”), Andy Partridge from XTC (“Margaret Freeman”), and Lene Lovich (“Picnic Boy”).
Though they are naturally vague in the liner notes, they insist that not all of these songs were fleshed out and then condensed, although some were and are included in the copious bonus tracks on offer. Furthermore, the bonus material offers ample enough evidence to show that Commercial Album was not a one-time prank and that they took these little snippets very seriously, as evidenced by of recordings of rehearsals and live shows, as well as a handful of rerecorded versions and updated takes made over the years.
The Residents’ keen sense of humor has kept them an active and vital force in the art rock and musical world. Commercial Album is evidence that even when they were being lighthearted, they were absolutely serious about their work––and even when they were serious about their work, they were never too serious to not have a good laugh.