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Let us agree that reviewing Golden Lies, the first Meat Puppets album in five years -- and the first to present Curt Kirkwood without brother Cris and Derrick Bostrom -- is a fool's errand for a Phoenix-based writer. Only a certified masochist accepts that responsibility. Let us agree to that, and then move forward. But reviewing Golden Lies, though it's bound to invite snarls, isn't anywhere near a dicey game on the level of writing, recording and then releasing the bastard. That takes guts of a whole different kind.
Read interviews with Curt Kirkwood over the last 10 years, and you'll find that he obstinately refuses to buy into the Pups' punk-god mythos; nonetheless, the group's latest indie enshrinement, Rykodisc's remasters, could have put an easy coda on the story. The Pups boast a king-hell track record, musically speaking, more than 10 years with the same lineup. If Curt K. wanted to make a clean cut and never record as a Puppet again, you couldn't blame the guy. But here comes Golden Lies under just that tag, forever to be shelved alongside Up on the Sun, II and Too High to Die, in strict defiance of good sense and caution.
So (the purists cry), is this a Meat Puppets album or ain't it?
Well, it ain't a Curt Kirkwood solo album. The music on Golden Lies, which Kirkwood produced, rings close enough to the Pups circa Forbidden Places-forward that it passes the initial aural test; guitarist Kyle Ellison and drummer Shandon Sahm (of Austin-based Pariah), along with bassist Andrew Duplantis (late of Bob Mould's outfit), provide a solid and familiar-sounding base for Kirkwood's slow vocals and meaty, hard-rock guitar work. And Kirkwood's lyrics -- the second likely hurdle for diehard fans -- are as surreal and free-form as they've ever been: "I've just been molested by a prehistoric goblin," "Bull frogs in antique magnetic cream," etc. And, particularly on the rambling closer "Fat Boy/Fat/Requiem," there are even flashes of the country-psychedelia that the Puppets carved out in the early '80s, the kind that nobody did at all before them, and nobody did as well after them.
So, from the swampy guitar arrangements to the creamed bull frogs, Golden Lies sounds like a Puppets record, if that sort of thing matters to you. Apart from these essentially banal comparisons, though, Golden Lies mostly sounds like the work of a guy who's had enough of enshrinement.
"I have always been a monster," Kirkwood sings on "Endless Wave"; on "Hercules," he lets out with "Just when you think that you're safe and alone/There comes a big, fat zombie with a taste for your tail-bone." From "I Quit," poised to be the album's first single, comes the line "Don't believe in humanity/Think they got the best of me/I believe in carpentry/Gonna build a galaxy." Throughout the album, there are references to machinery and artifice, rejection of the natural world, chasing and getting chased. You could, if you wanted, hear the entire album as the sound of Kirkwood railing against the expectations that will inevitably greet Golden Lies; that rough edge layers every note on this album with a vital tension missing on the last few Puppets releases. Lyrically, this is one of Kirkwood's best sets precisely because he allows himself to be self-conscious, and because he refuses to come on like nothing's changed in the five years since No Joke!.
Take "Pieces of Me": "Mostly I'm scattered with castaway matter/The usual stuff that you see . . ./There's palm trees and milky machine guns/And sunsets that melt like a gem in the sea/Hours and hours of televised time/And occasional pieces of me." "Pieces of Me," a wry documentary of disintegration that would have sounded bitter and out of place on No Joke! or Too High, works perfectly on Golden Lies. And it works because Kirkwood recognizes that not everyone came out unscathed the year punk broke --Cobain and Kirkwood's own brother Cris, to name only two closely connected figures -- and he isn't shying away from that reality. "Pieces of Me," like much of Golden Lies, is the sound of a myth imploding, and Curt K. -- like Lennon, in another context -- has earned the right to call it over.
If Kirkwood says he's still a Puppet, he's a Puppet, at least as far as this listener is concerned. Names aside, though, Golden Lies is a solid album from a musician who still has the capacity to deliver material you won't find anywhere else. That ought to be all that matters.
It won't be, at least for some -- the towering Pups mythos will see to that -- but it ought to be. Someone should go on record as having said that.