And once again I find myself having to defend Momus in the court of public opinion. He just released a new album, Athenian, at the end of April, and I’m sad to say he’s making this task harder than ever. What are you doing, man? What’s the endgame here? You have an avid underground following, but you aren’t going to be making any big changes here. I feel like at some point someone had to have told you.
For those who don’t know, Momus is a poet, and a man out of time. His style has primarily been defined by his provocative lyrics and creepy and unique instrumentation. Since the 1980s, he’s been in the music game, playing the Shakespearean fool, pointing and laughing at mankind while planting himself firmly above them. And it worked. John Cooper Clarke is said to be the “punk rock poet,” but I think that title belongs to Momus--and not just because he is infinitely more talented than Clarke on a poetic level, but also because his songs were far more punk than they appeared. His statements were salacious and uncomfortable, especially on albums like Don’t Stop the Night--which covered every taboo from incest to necrophilia--and Hippopotamomus, which retained a lot of that material, but was done in the pastiche of a children’s album. He was like a Shel Silverstein you’d not want anywhere near your kids.
He has garnered his share of controversy for these lyrics as well, and one particularly insensitive song left him bankrupt, which brought about Stars Forever, an album made to pay off his debts, auctioning songs off for 1000 dollars a pop. The result is one of his finest works, and in and of itself is a powerful punk statement on the commercialism of art (or perhaps just a commercialism of art. Who can say anymore?) But Momus’ M.O. has always been positioning himself outside of the mainstream and going for the jugular of anyone in it. But now, with a pandemic and tensions everywhere at an all-time high… Athenian is the last thing we need.
Now, anyone who’s heard Momus will probably tell you that it’s difficult to know exactly where the man is coming from when he sings. Whether he’s poking fun at someone by singing as if he were them, singing about them as himself, or just stirring the pot because he thinks both arguments are silly. But “The Existentialist,” coming in at the tail-end of the album, tells a story of a man who almost regrets his hedonistic past. The song is about being young and thinking the world is toxic and why it’s not a good way to live. Much of this sentiment is also present in the opener, “Swansong,” but there it’s hopeful. Here it’s a denouncement. Hearing it at the end recontextualizes Athenian, painting a far dourer picture than any of these lyrics do on their own.
There isn’t much explicit imagery here, and while at first that seemed like a mark of artistic maturity, it now almost seems like Momus is vaunting himself to some higher status just because he’s a great writer. The songs are weird and incendiary, like they’re looking to get a rise out of someone, but it’s hard to discern just how much he cares. And these statements are weak. “Chatternooga” likens preaching equality in classrooms to forced conformity in society, and “Zooming” is cryptic as ever, drawing parallels between nudity on a Zoom call to being cancelled for body-shaming(?) I mean, you have to give it to him: he takes you on a walk for that one!
Momus didn’t used to be political, is the thing. He used to be wholly himself and apparently unconcerned with the world around him. Here though, his writing has blossomed and his ethos is gone. My favorite tracks here are those that lapse into surrealism and don’t seem so out for a car-keying. “Coco the Clown” is a fun, creepy song about the spirit of a clown telling the narrator facts about life, and “Bus Inspector Bill” is a stripped-down narrative poem about a woman and her late husband’s fights while a bus inspector sleeps with her. It’s all fun, classic Momus, if a little more PG than what we’re used to, but these songs are few and far between. Mostly, Momus is just bemoaning the state of the world today, and the worst offenders in this department are our two closers. “Doomscroll” follows, from what I can tell, a fifty-something Momus complaining about not being able to see any positive things on social media, and “Athenian” takes what once was a one-of-a-kind artist and puts him right at home with Van Morrison in the camp of anti-lockdowners. Why are the older folks so keen on dismissing this? We’re doing it for you! But that’s neither here nor there...
And of all of these songs, “Athenian” seems the most tongue in cheek, but given the context of the rest of Athenian, I’m more inclined to believe this album was just born of quarantine-boredom and too much time spent on Twitter. And it’s sad. I love Momus, but this ain’t it chief. Maybe it’s time to go back to your roots. Necrophilia is still an undertapped market.