If you can handle the heaviness of it all, then Honeymoon on Mars is probably for you.
Remember that summer before you went off to college and your friend Brian handed you lemonade pitcher, gave you a wicked smile and, sometime later, after you had a glass of sweet refreshment, things went all lysergic? The trees swelled and breathed and you could see the subtext of conversation written on the sidewalks. “Just don’t look in the mirror,” you told yourself. Then you did. Shucks. That’s a big what this strange, unsettling slab of anti-music from the Pop Group is like. It’s not psychedelic in the sense you’ve come to consider: Wah-wahs and backwards guitars and oooh-baby-we-gotta-get-back-to-the-country lyrics.
The opening “Instant Halo,” for instance, sounds like you’re witnessing a first mix, the instruments so sparse, irregular and just out enough that you can’t believe you’re hearing a finished song. Guitars stab and shout and cut intense, throbbing rhythms while keyboards jab their way in at times obtuse and unexpected. A funky bass figure bounds into the room and adds some relief before the ugly, insistent rhythms begin trudging us into the void once more. The song doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as it just stops.
That’s okay. In the mid-1990s, Robert Fripp got up to some similar strangeness with a sextet version of King Crimson and though this lot doesn’t sound much like those fellows, the idea is similar: Find a way to upset established notions about music and for gawdsake don’t play anything that could be construed as typical. That held mostly true then and holds mostly true, here, though there’s the odd pause for a “single” (the downright campfire-by-comparison “City of Eyes”) and something you might hear on some weird guy’s late night radio college show (“Little Town,” which is Bowie by way of Malcolm McLaren).
It’s hard going, frankly, truly challenging listening and you’re either up for it or not. In truth, even the most avant weird among us might have problems wading through “Michael 13” more than two or three times and “Heaven?” some might not get through a first go at “Heaven?” let alone any happy returns. The closing “Burn Your Flag” is the kind of theatre you wish more groups would whip out from time to time, the weirdness that starts conversations, starts arguments and makes us think.
If that’s the whole goal of this collection, then the Pop Group has succeeded.
Even a piece such as the slow-rising throat-grabber “Zipperface” raises as many questions as eyebrows. Is it supposed to make us want to dance or is a walk through a vacuous day in the life? Well, that’s more than some bands get us to contemplate in three minutes and change and so we can’t do more than sit back and enjoy the ride or be unnerved by it.
The one thing that the album is lacking, though, is a sense of joy. The vocals are placed up front so that they’re loud in the extreme, impossible to escape and their sometimes disconnected observations, along with the out-and-out oddities of the music itself makes the whole affair just a dash more uncomfortable than it has to be. It’s okay to push the envelope and have a laugh (and the Pop Group has done that before) and it’s okay to be as serious as nuclear war too. It’s just that the latter is, let’s face it, less fun and the characters we meet across these songs and the situations we’re plunged into practically scream for us to have a good and hearty chuckle of some kind.
If you can handle the heaviness of it all, then Honeymoon on Mars is probably for you. Just don’t expect that you’ll be able to swallow it all at once. In fact, it may take you a long, long time to fully appreciate what’s here.