Plays like an even more fucked up late-period Scott Walker.
It’s a combination that may strike listeners as a bit odd: Mike Patton’s avant garde vocal stylings often border on the completely unhinged, and Jean-Claude Vannier is the godfather of French pop music courtesy of his work with the lecherous Serge Gainsbourg. Having met at an event honoring Gainsbourg, their subsequent pairing begins to make more and more sense, Patton having long been a collaborative spirit and vocal chameleon and Vannier providing instrumental backing for a who’s-who of French pop’s biggest, most influential names of the second half of the 20th century. The resulting collaboration, Corpse Flower, might not be a Histoire de Melody Nelson for the 21st century, but given Patton’s resume, the album’s far darker tone should come as no surprise.
Opening track “Ballade C.3.3” finds Patton reciting fragments of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” over an appropriately sparse bit of percussion and bluesy instrumentation. It’s a simmering slow-burn bit of late-night poetry reading that helps establish early the ensuing aesthetic employed by the bulk of the album. As the name suggests, Corpse Flower is obsessed with all facets of life and death, heavy on the latter and as darkly as the cover image. It’s a difficult listen, and a bleak one.
“Chanson d’amour” is the most immediately indebted to the Gainsbourg/Vannier aesthetic established on albums such as Histoire de Melody Nelson, though here sounding as though the former’s trademark sleazy croon were cribbed from a low rent Tom Waits. It’s a smoky, bluesy bit of late night cabaret – heavy on the piano – filtered through the grime and haze of Patton’s patented avant garde approach to nearly every project of which he’s been a part since the formation of Mr. Bungle in the ‘80s. His raspy croon comes out of the speakers like a Gainsbourgian ghost, floating in on a haze of cigarette smoke, intoning the title phrase in a passable French accent before going full Waits-circa-Nighthawks at the Diner.
Not surprisingly, much of Corpse Flower hinges on Patton’s speak-singing and a borderline Waitsian growl designed to cultivate a very specific aesthetic, one heavily aged in darkened barrooms after hours, surrounded by all manner of questionable humanity. It’s an often unsettling listen that plays like an even more fucked up late-period Scott Walker (RIP) taking his blackened approach to a new series of extremes. “Cold Sun, Warm Beer” is a prime, pessimism-infused example of this, made all the more warped by Vannier’s deceptively complex arrangement.
Patton has long shown himself to be an incredibly versatile and creative vocalist in a variety of settings, but here he keeps his multitudinous approaches largely in check in favor of the speak-sing-growl. He hints at a more nuanced vocal approach on tracks like the note-perfect noir of “Browning” and the eerie-in-the-best-way “Hungry Ghost,” there occasionally sounding, unintentionally, no doubt, like an outtake from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera.
The title track is a short, comparatively jaunty minor key bit of cabaret jazz featuring Patton spouting all manner of multi-lingual gibberish in a menacing, phlegmatic growl. It’s also one of the best showcases for Vannier’s compositional approach, cramming a variety of sounds and styles together to create something at once familiar and utterly foreign. Similarly, “Insolubles” plays with a more organic approach with its Eastern instrumentation and modalities, each juxtaposed against Patton’s Paolo Conte-esque vocal style. This is one of a series of extremely continental sounding arrangements scattered throughout Corpse Flower, making for a decidedly trans-Atlantic listen.
Corpse Flower is an adventurous, enjoyable listen, the result of an iconoclastic pairing of two artists willing to push the envelope in myriad ways in order to come up with something both unique and familiar in its Frankensteining of the two primary artists’ storied careers. Look no further than “On Top of the World” for evidence, as an otherwise pleasant bit of chamber music is cut by Patton howling over Vannier’s heavy, dirty blues: “If I get to the top of the world/ I’ll take a shit right now on this Earth.”