Music News

Great Scot

Everything you'd ever want to know about Momus -- the effeminate, eye-patched, Scottish-born composer, singer, and essayist -- is available for your perusal. Through interviews, pop-culture magazine columns, and a voluminous output of smarmy, hermetically sealed, electronic-pop albums (more than 15 since 1982, with more on the way), Momus has revealed his influences and ideas on a staggering array of topics. With the same detail and depth, he's also made his personal life more or less an open book. Relationships, day-to-day activities, personal habits, and bizarre peccadilloes are fodder for discussion as well as songs.

For sheer entertainment value, interesting opinions, and thoughts provoked, Momus makes Moby seem about as interesting as Dave Matthews. Rarely, though, has his music ever risen to meet the promise of his prose.

The number of Momus's songs one would want to hear more than once are few and far between. His lyrical acuity is never less than 20/20, but his scandalously witty writings consistently outpace his music, which far too often is terrifically boring, high-concept synth-pop. Momus ostensibly makes himself available for interviews but failed to respond to two e-mails I sent requesting a chat. Not a problem, though: The tale of the tape (or CD, as the case may be) makes it clear that all pertinent information about the man has already been revealed.

Nicholas Currie was born in Paisley, Scotland, and lived in Athens, London, Paris, and Montreal before spending the past few years in New York City. Recently, the notorious Japanophile relocated to Tokyo.

Currie was a member of the British 4AD band the Happy Family, which produced one album in 1982 before disbanding. Currie's lyrics -- ultra-ironic, steeped in ancient history, psychology, kinky sex -- constitute the most ambitious portion of the record.

In 1986, Currie released the first of his many albums under the name Momus (an obscure Greek god usually on the outs with Zeus), called Circus Maximus. Literary, historical, and biblical references abounded, but his acoustic guitar/analog keyboard template was already outdated when he discovered it.

The Poison Boyfriend (1987) finds Momus imagining himself a sexy Jewish Frenchman like Serge Gainsbourg. Despite inventive use of drum machine and synthesizer, there isn't a moment where the music isn't completely done in by the impossibly clever lyrics (which often outdo themselves). Best song title: "Sex for the Disabled."

Tender Pervert (1988) and Don't Stop the Night (1989) unleash Momus's liberal politics on the Thatcher regime with smashing results. Perversion figures heavily on both records: There's car-crash sex, sex with 12-year-olds, sex with whores. Best song title: "I Was a Maoist Intellectual." Hipoppatamomus came in for knocks in 1991 due to its over-the-top, pornographic songs. Best title this time: "I Ate a Girl Right Up."

Voyager (1992) and Timelord (1993) began Momus's fascination with Japanese culture, Japanese sexuality, and Japanese technology. In 1994, he became the target of tabloid tattlers when he married a 17-year-old Muslim girl from Bangladesh (she was only 14 when they met). Her wealthy parents had arranged a marriage for her at home; after she escaped to England, the couple went into hiding.

Currie ended up in Paris, but his heart was in Japan, where the new technology of personal computers and the Internet beckoned. He began a love affair and Svengali role with pop tart Kahimi Karie, for whom he penned an assortment of tunes. Several charted well and positioned Momus as a prime purveyor of Shibuya-Kei, Tokyo's trendaholic flavor of the hour.

Philosophy of Momus (1995) boasts a few unusually memorable tracks. Best title: "Slide Projector Lie Detector." A year later, Momus released 20 Vodka Jellies (subtitled "An Assortment of Curiosities and Rarities"); curiously enough, it contains many of the finest songs he's written. The Kahimi material ("I Am a Kitten," "Vogue Bambini") allows him to run wild with lyrical tomfoolery, while moody, beautifully textured pieces like "London 1888" and "The End of History" are like watching rain through a picture window. Strangely smitten by the Cobain mystique, the man who's proclaimed "irony is the oxygen of contemporary culture" included three "experiments in grunge."

It wasn't until the time of Ping Pong (1997) that Momus's records were finally released in the United States. Ping Pong is another example of fantastic ideas and cunning wordplay (i.e. "How to Get -- and Stay -- Famous") that are inevitably dulled by their musical settings, his love of spoofy pastiches wearing extremely thin. Revisiting his favorite themes -- the state of modern art, sexual repression, Japanese totems, the sensation of orgasm -- makes the record among his most dispensable. Best song title: "Lolitapop Dollhouse."

In December 1997, Momus reports, he awoke one morning with acanthamoeba keratitis, an eye infection caused by a chafing contact lens that has since forced him to wear a pirate patch over his right socket.

In 1998, Momus's far-reaching wit went a bit too far. The hedonistic Little Red Songbook explored powdered-wig harpsichord hymns (high analog baroque, he called it), coming up with some of the most memorable melodies of his career, finally appearing to outgrow his foppish Pet Shop Boyhood. "Old Friend, New Flame" finds him currying the favors of a pal's pretty young thing, "MC Escher" is a most enjoyable rumination on the titular artist's mathematical skills, and "Coming in a Girl's Mouth" manages to be deliciously explicit while pretending to seriously dissect the cultural symbolism of such an act -- in short, pure, puerile Momus. "Walter Carlos" explores the possibility of a worm-hole reunion between the transsexual composer of Switched-On Bach and Wendy Carlos, the woman he later became via surgery.

"Unfortunately," sings Momus in his inimitably fey whisper, "Einstein informs us that when time travel's finally possible/There will be no returning to periods previous/To the point at which time travel first became possible/So like Walter Carlos/Until such time as it's feasible/We'll have to restrict time travel/To the realm of the musical."

Alas, Carlos heard the song and didn't laugh -- in fact, she sued. Momus and his American label, Le Grand Magistery, won the suit but were still nailed with $30,000 in fees. To save his smart ass, Momus solicited patrons, including provocative artist Jeff Koons, Japanese pop genius Cornelius, New York PR firm Girlie Action Media, and an adorable three-year-old. Thirty folks paid $1000 to commission their own personal Momus song, and they were collected on 1999's Stars Forever. Best song title: "Onan the Barbarian."

Late last year, Momus released Folktronic, an anthropological investigation of Appalachian porch droppings via binary code and digital camera. Unsurprisingly, the idea is far funnier on paper than actually suffering through "Robocowboys" or "Folk Me Amadeus." As always, however, Currie's Exacto-blade wit is a joy to read. Best song title: "Jarre in Hicksville."

While it's a shame that Momus's creations are rarely sturdy enough to stand on their own musical merits, the fact remains that there's simply no one else like him. Who else but Momus could write "Mountain Music," a modern little ode to electronic folk?

"I've got that mountain music in me/Deep in memory/Time-stretched in my sampler/On my Rio MP3/I've got the mountains on a Minidisc/Right next to my heart/And when I press the play button/I hear the music start."

The sounds that accompany this arch comedy, sadly, are an undercooked quiche of Tinkertoy synths and flattened drum-machine beats. Couldn't a man as smart as Momus spend a bit more time perfecting the utterly unmysterious set his characters perennially inhabit?

Maybe, if his music began to ask "What if?" fewer of us would respond, "So what?"

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton