Like a Puppet Show is as an exercise of musical intelligentsia, a blend of philosophy and electronica that aims to be more than novelty.
John Malkovich is known for many things—his renowned acting and directing, being a vessel through which John Cusack and Cameron Diaz discover their true desires—but perhaps none more so than his voice and his inimitable elocution. That is the starting point of Like a Puppet Show, the collaboration between Malkovich, composer Eric Alexandrakis and photographer Sandro Miller. Malkovich recited Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” a piece that dwells on our false, even shallow, perception of reality and the world around us. The recording was subsequently parsed and remixed by a host of musicians, including Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, Young the Giant and the Dandy Warhols. The 11 remixes are wildly different, but each of them embraces Plato’s dark themes, conjuring the image of Malkovich delivering a diatribe on the nature of philosophy and man, which is much more believable than the plot of Being John Malkovich.
These ambient soundscapes generally fall into two categories: those that cherry-pick key phrases from Malkovich’s recitation and those that simply leave it as-is. What’s interesting in the former is hearing which particular lines find their way into nearly every remix. Listening to the album in one go, Malkovich frequently intones “illuminated or be clouded,” “light over darkness” and other iterations of a perpetual conflict between a Good and Evil. It’s all, needless to say, very ominous. OMD’s offering, in particular, is a pulsing mix of distorted Malkovich and sparkling synths, the blend of deep beats and airy piano lines mirroring Plato’s contrast between darkness and light. Ric Ocasek’s brief yet impactful “Cryoblue Cheese” builds on similar themes, this time couching the remix in a veritable den of white noise that threatens to overwhelm Malkovich’s reading.
It’s a balancing act, which speaks to the nature of creating remixes from classical recitations as well as the inherent struggle for deeper knowledge over mere impressions—the reality over the façade—that Plato contemplated. “The prisoners have been here since childhood,” says Malkovich, and their scope of vision doesn’t extend beyond the “shadows on the wall.” One prisoner’s hypothetical escape from his primordial cave of ignorance to the light of the outside world provides a positive spin on an existential quagmire, and one that several artists on Like a Puppet Show latch onto.
The Danish group Efterklang, known for their piano-driven synthpop, revel in that moment of escape, enveloping Malkovich in a vacuum. Unassuming ripples of synths build, accented by blips and sparse, almost incidental percussion, until Malkovich’s voice rises from the gloom into a shimmering bevy of piano keys and strings. Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries is even more overt with her exultant musical interpretation. Her “Cryopian D” is notably one of the few tracks that includes extensive vocals layered over Malkovich. A chorus of Doloreses (worthy of Enya) and a single, piercing flute accompany Malkovich’s tale. It’s one of the least creative remixes on the album but one of the most affecting.
One can regard Like a Puppet Show as an exercise of musical intelligentsia, a blend of philosophy and electronica that aims to be more than novelty—and perhaps it is—but the most enjoyable track here comes courtesy of Dweezil Zappa. “CryoZolon X” and its zigzagging bass line is playful to the core, asking ad infinitum, “Malkovich, Malkovich, what the fuck are you talking about?!” It’s a welcome three and a half minutes of unbridled absurdity in an album that can be overbearingly dense.