41. Momus – What will death be like?

/ Murderers, the hope of women, Creation, 1986


I’ve written extensively about Momus, elsewhere and long ago, and over-exposure to his persona meant that for years I couldn’t listen to his music.  Yes, Nick Currie has the ability to irritate not only those who have never liked him, but also his own fans.

But sufficient time has passed that not so long ago I once again went to see Momus do his one-man digital vs vaudeville Brechtian cabaret act in the bar at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (a natural Momus habitat).  Subsequently I felt up to rediscovering the overt lyrical power and subtle emotional effect of Momus’ early records.  And now – if you haven’t already done so – you can too, for having previously posted a collection of demos from 1988 (Amazing blonde women, comprised of the songs that would form the bulk of Tender pervert and Don’t stop the night), Momus has made his entire Creation Records-era back catalogue available gratis.  He argues:

Creation doesn’t exist any more, and in theory Sony owns the rights to these albums, but isn’t doing anything with them and probably never will. In the meantime, only Russian pirates are profiting, charging punters for illegal downloads. … If you’re the sort of person who likes to donate to the artist when you download, do it here. But it’s not really necessary; these albums paid for themselves long ago.

I don’t want to risk becoming disenchanted with his music again, so I’m trying not to detain myself (or you) too long with the verbiage.  But ‘What will death be like?’ deserves a paragraph or two in its own right.  A relentless torrent of imagery, of the kinds of knowledge that might prove useful on University Challenge, it is superficially the work of intellect, but its cumulative effect is emotional.  In sorrowful celebration, it speaks of amazement at life’s infinite variety.  Against this Perec-esque inventory of horror and wonder, Momus squeakily fingers the strings of his acoustic guitar, twanging hard enough that the jarring notes dispute with the hypnotic seven minute march of images up and down the hills of your mind.

By the time he wrote ‘Murderers, the hope of women’ and ‘What will death be like?’, Momus had already developed his own unique style, but he was certainly still taking a dose of inspiration from Jacques Brel, and I would guess also from Leonard Cohen, whose ‘Who by fire’ is equally inventorial and death-fixated.  Had Momus been born Jewish, you can imagine that he might also have been tempted to call an album New skin for the old ceremony.

Momus’ own view of ‘What will death be like?’ is characteristically ambivalent:

How I rate this now: Powerful, but rather worthy. Oddly enough, it now sounds to me like a song about ambition, as if it’s not about death but about being a great writer.  It’s bloody difficult to play live (which doesn’t stop me trying).

Why was a 26 year-old man so obsessed with death?  Well, existentialism had been a big formative influence on my teenage years. I was steeped in that.  But there was also the fact that death was something you weren’t really supposed to dwell on in pop music, which made it ‘transgressive’, and that was something I wanted to be.  A difficult artist, a singing author hitting you with big themes.  Something like Léo Ferré or – of course – Jacques Brel, whose ‘La mort’ looms large behind this Wittgensteinian list of things death won’t be like, because they’re all things pointing towards death, but firmly anchored in life.

Every line is memorable for the image it conjures up, but perhaps my favourite couple of verses appear at the song’s mid-point:

Death will be unlike the wrinkling sea children glimpse through the chinks in the boardwalk
Death will be unlike the magical land of The lion, the witch and the wardrobe
Death will be unlike the treacherous virus that murders the lovers with AIDS
Death will be unlike the phantoms of freedom that lead the crowd over the barricades
Death will be unlike the night thoughts of ‘Late Call’ when ministers stop being cosy
Death will be unlike The pit and the pendulum co-starring Bela Lugosi
Death will be unlike the bulge of the mouse inside the boa constrictor
Death will be unlike that drunkard the phoenix, so tight on the moonshine of golden elixirs

Momus may be displaying his erudition, the breadth of his cultural knowledge, his peacock ambition to be a great writer, but there is also the honorable intention of trying to cram in all of human life.  The wordplay is impressive, first a complementary and then a conflicting image, but it’s equally expressive, and the listener’s pleasure is in the flight of the toss of this two-sided coin – the artful joy of the poetry, and the essential sadness which underlies it. 

Momus once wrote:

‘I’ve always been accused of being the most literary of songwriters. In fact I started off doing lots of experiments with guitars, bottles, tissue paper, smashed pianos and tape distortion which, eventually, out of sheer laziness, I stuck some words on top of. … For years I searched my guitar for the ‘missing chord’ that would stop time or make the whole world weep.  Now I scroll through a thousand types of digital delay to find the one that will switch the world into slow motion.  It’s music that really fascinates me.  Words come easy, I have a facility with them, I can ‘do’ words.’

With time, I’ve come to see this as less a typically knowing and crafty attempt to escape from people’s preconceptions, and more an essential truth that the man behind the mask has decided to let slip.  Though the music that accompanies the verses of ‘What will death be like?’ is not especially striking or original, its artful clumsiness gives the litany of images a perfect platform, and the resulting synthesis of musical and lyrical mood is undeniably mournful.  ‘The sadness of things’, as a later Momus song put it.  Life is fleeting and death unknowable.

In a suitably Momus-esque twist, I lent my copy of ‘Murderers, the hope of women’ to a girl who was keen on me, though I was sadly too dim-witted to work this out at the time.   The following year I got a postcard from her with Yorick’s skull on it.  Never got the record back though.


2 Responses to 41. Momus – What will death be like?

  1. lunarcamelco says:

    “A relentless torrent of imagery, of the kinds of knowledge that might prove useful on University Challenge, it is superficially the work of intellect, but its cumulative effect is emotional.” Spot-on, according to a belated commenter.

  2. Thank you for not being a vagabond, and for thinking and saying so.

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