Yeah, the Bum Was Dead


Nebula’s Atomic Ritual is the best album yet from the second-greatest-ever band from Pasadena, and its best song, “So It Goes,” is better than “Don’t Fear the Reaper” times Devo’s “Beautiful World.” The opening sort of updates that old Jim Carroll song into “Strokes Who Died,” with repetitive piano banging over rapid and relentless 1/4 pounding. A “descending pick slide” (that reverse rocket-launch sound) covers two bars until the wah whooshes, right at the end. Like if “Eric’s Trip” by Sonic Youth had all the noises painstakingly geometricized, then winched into place, or pushed on rollers by spirited-but-misguided Easter Islanders before they realized that they’d deforested the island and had to resort to cannibalism.

The lyrics in “So It Goes” are tightly formatted, with key phrases appearing in different parts of the lines as the song progresses. The first verse alludes either to Picnic at Hanging Rock or the latest local-paper school outing gone horribly wrong. The second is more rigorous in its mortis. “Asphyxiation/His final rock and roll.” These verses complement the title and chorus’s tone of resigned fatalism. “Everything’s beautiful, and nothing hurts/When your time comes, nothing hurts/Everything’s beautiful, and so it goes.” The Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” as desultorily chuckled over by the ambulance staff.

Then the next verse stiffens spasmodically and reaches out from under the sheet to sink its still-growing nails into your flesh. “In the fetal position/He was frozen stiff/He was lyin’ by the train track/Yeah, the bum was dead.” Hilarious if somewhat brusque —like a drunk and abusive Steely Dan, right? Until the next line. “His feet were blue/Someone had stolen his boots/So it goes/So it goes.” The never ending degradation that denies souls’ dignity even in death, and then the “everything’s beautiful” chorus repeats except with the omniscient shrug inverted into its frozen-void opposite while maintaining the uniformity of delivery. (Eddie Glass sounds more like Ace “DeLorean Tremens” Frehley now than like Bob Mould.) Lasciate ogni speranza (like it should’ve said on the entrance of the Brit hospital I went to this morning to get a piece of ice pick removed from my left orbital that they’d stupidly left in there. Passed the waiting-room time by making up lyrics to the tune of this song about fellow patients. “He had lacerations all over his face/covered with blood all over the place/He rocked back and forth and whined like a dog/such a drama queen, such a drama queen”).

Then there’s a guitar solo explicitly linking aforementioned glue-bag Frehley with a post-satori James Williamson, after which the same unison note is repeated 48 times and the song stops dead. The next best song on Atomic Ritual instructs “get out of your head”; the other songs (especially the amicable antinomianism of “The Beast”) have a similar Van Morrison-type uplift rendered not only necessary but life-transformative after the previously mentioned, and the overall sound is Kiss Alive without crowd noises (which I’m sure doesn’t exist anywhere and never did): i.e., utter perfection. An essential release.

Pelican’s Australasia, by contrast, is instrumental stoner rock. Pelican are very skilled at using slight tempo shifts to maximize the riffs, and I like how they use the Pythagorean tuning system on the acoustic guitars instead of that equal-temperament bullshit. Leaving aside the ECM-ish production, instro-stoner is kind of like dub, in that one’s latent Calvinism is nagged by the seeming facility of separating the sonics from the Scriptures. Is it still glossolalia if you’re only walking in Memphis?