erasing clouds

Circus Devils, Sgt. Disco

reviewed by dave heaton

Having an audience of cult-like followers is a double-edged sword. They’ll buy everything you release, but are they the best audience for all of it? I imagine there to be plenty of GBV/Robert Pollard diehards who just don’t “get” the Circus Devils, who tolerate more than enjoy them. That’s what happens when you make your name on arena-rock anthems and offbeat pop but also like creating a more experimental version of the same, which casts the arena-pop elements aside and turns the rock inside-out, into a warped, psychedelic cousin of itself. So I am happy to see the Circus Devils sign to Mike Patton’s Ipecac label – followers of the label releasing the Melvins and Peeping Tom will likely understand where the Circus Devils are coming from.

Though Sgt Disco, the group’s fifth LP and first for Ipecac, starts out seeming less bizarre than some of the previous releases, keep listening, because it’s a strange trip, and probably the band’s best. It begins with some sideways classic-rock songs (like a more acid-trip version of GBV) about escape from life. “She would fly out through the window,” the album begins, “…And other times / she would just wake up and not know where she was.” A feeling that could describe the tone of the whole album from there on, starting with the both familiar and weird sound of Pollard singing “In Madonna’s gazebo” to the tune of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and proceeding onward. The music is primal rock, with a surreal tension about it, with sonic images of hacksaws and cackling fools. The lyrics on the first handful of songs reference fantasies and drugs, before wandering into Saw-like torture games around track 10 or 11. Possibly the latter is the place: “He wears steel rings to weigh down his hands / so they won’t be tempted to grope and roam.” Or maybe it is the former, with its urging/ordering chorus: “The assassins’ ballroom / get your ass in.”

There are so many tracks (32) and so much strangeness – plus familiar, but not, styles of guitar-rock – that it’s like we’re in an alternate Pollard universe. (That is, if you forget the seriously avant garde streak lurking throughout his discography.) After a while I start to feel lost, like where the hell am I? And then a song comes in that lets me know, like a signpost. Track 14, “New Boy”, finds Pollard singing to a jumpy calliope, and the answer hits us, though it was in the band’s name all along – we’re trapped inside of a circus, a devilish one.

Though the album feels like someone’s dark fantasy, there’s enough nods towards reality for us to understand where all this pain and fear really comes from. The lyrics reference work, marriage politics, war, love, football, houses and Cadillacs – all of the trappings of everyday life. This circus, it seems, is real life, or a warped carnival-mirror image of it. Sgt Disco turns the pains of life into colorful, ridiculous mythology, a circus built of everyday melancholy. “Your husband is smashed / and not coming home,” he sings in “Happy Zones.”

By the album’s end there’s some insinuating that maybe this is all a nightmare, that all you have to do to escape is to wake up. “Count on me to dream myself awake,” Pollard sings in “French Horn Litigation.” But at the end of this maze we’re left with just another nightmare. “I can’t get my hands out of the icebox,” he wails on the final track, moments after likening his situation to the atmosphere of a Werner Herzog film. And the nightmare continues, on an infinity loop to nowhere…


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