The new album by the American avant-rock iconoclasts is in one respect a clear homage to the seminal Raymond Chandler novel that gives it its name. Well, the booklet note invokes all that connection pretty convincingly in its two-page summary pseudo-novella. But more to the point I think, it’s to be seen as the end of the road that Ubu founder David Thomas started 40 years ago. Take the alternate road, the “other story” described in the booklet: that David, when critically ill and hospitalised at the end of 2017, determined there would be one last, definitive album, to “wrap up every song and story that Père Ubu has been telling in different ways for the past 40+ years.” The “definitive hour” that delivers up into what he considers the definitive destination. And that’s a bold statement of intent that might be thought untypical of the ultra-cryptic Ubu ethos, except in David’s stated wish to rewrite and reimagine commercial pop radio. “Pop music shouldn’t be without meaning or truthfulness. 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”.
So what are we to make of The Long Goodbye? For a start, it’s tough listening, and hard to make sense of structurally, that is considering its relatively short – non-long – running time (38 minutes). Not a bad thing of course – and that’s been par for the course with Ubu right from the start. Challenge is the name of the game. The sound of this album is also untypically expansive, less lean, due to it having been written and arranged initially by David on his own collection of synths, drum machines and a melodeon (no kidding!), only later passed out to the other musicians with the invitation to develop and embed their own dimensions onto the music. Complex electronica from Gagarin and Wheeler, “outré” percussion (Peter Jørgens), guitars (Moliné and Temple) and clarinet (Darryl Boon) completing the picture and building the “avant-garage” around David’s songs, then finally left for David to assemble into the coherent finished product. Well, almost. But as I’ve hinted, it can be tough listening, even after several plays. And of course it’s “only one view of the infamous Ubu cup” that has taken us through 40 years of “Flicking Cigarettes At The Sun” (so to speak).
However, it all makes more sense after you’ve listened to the bonus (second) disc of this CD edition of The Long Goodbye. It’s a recording of a live Ubu gig in Montreuil, Paris in December 2018. Chris Cutler had rejoined the band for the gig, so the onstage lineup was frontman DT with Cutler, Gagarin and Moliné. The story is that although they were contracted to explore three tracks from the new album they were so enthused with the material (all of it) that they decided to present the album in its entirety – albeit with unbelievably minimal rehearsal time. Considering they’d only played it for the first time two days before, and not all the tracks had even been studio-finalised at that point, the result was nothing short of miraculous, and taken in context, listened through as a continuous concert experience with intro, explanations and stuff, it’s both fascinating and hair-raising. The audience reaction was – rightly – euphoric. For in a weird kind of way, it even feels more “complete” than the finished studio album – even tho’ the running order is switched around a bit in the first half – and the immediate sense of intellectual catharsis is so much more intense, especially on numbers like Skidrow-On-Sea and semi-spoken epic The Road Ahead (Requiem Pour La République). Also, the gig includes some extra material – fittingly, opening with the classic early Ubu song Heart Of Darkness (where it all started) and concluding with three more songs forming a respectable and intriguing encore – Road To Utah (from 2014’s Carnival Of Souls), Running Dry (a plaintive, vulnerable and agonisingly twisted Crazy Horse cover) and the eerie Highwaterville (from late-90s album Pennsylvania). It may be a trial incarnation of the project, but it’s compulsive listening from and on the edge. Even when it comes to rest on Lovely Day before the ritual encore situation and its laconic preamble.
So yeah, two discs does make for a nice long goodbye, and a pretty definitive hour (and a half). Sure, with Ubu’s warped restlessness, their archetypally alien vistas, it can at times feel just like someone has “stolen the signposts”; yet here, and in the live disc in particular, there’s something of a sense of completion, a wheel turning full circle. But even so, the booklet note’s postscript finally proclaims, “after The Long Goodbye there will be a new beginning” – so it can’t end there, surely?
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