My mom and I bond over music. I’ve always shared with her the bands and albums I’ve been listening to, regardless of how “out there” they may have been (I’ve been lucky with lax parents when it comes to what media I consumed as a teenager), and she usually responds positively. Anyway, when I first played “Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone” by The Unicorns for her in what was maybe early high school, she turned to me and asked why I was playing sound effects.
Released originally on Oct. 21, 2003, The Unicorns’s first and final album came out during an indie pop height, but the Montreal-based band found a niche fanbase for their slightly unhinged sound and definitely unhinged live performances. Since then, the album’s grown into itself and solidified its spot in the indie pop canon, especially with its 11th anniversary remastered rerelease in 2014.
It’s a lightning-in-a-bottle album, with the band’s quarreling creatives only being able to work together long enough to create one project, and the tension of the album’s recording is buoyant from clashing creative energy of the two, swinging as they do between sounds and tones. Midway through the album, the track “I Was Born (A Unicorn)” delves into that authorial tension: the band’s two vocalists and creative leads, Nick Thorburn and Alden Penner, sing insults back at one another: “I write the songs / I write the songs! / You say I’m doing it wrong / You are doing it wrong!”
I’ll start with the fact that The Unicorns, in many ways, sound more experimental than they really are. The vocals change both pitch and vocalist frequently, the lyrics are manic and the song structures are non-traditional, yes, but the moment-to-moment sound of the album is entirely accessible. It’s a series of musical hooks that catch and twist, few melodies repeating themselves, but each being essentially indie pop in nature. “Who Will Cut …” is a pop album without a pop verse-chorus-verse structure, and that’s where, I think, it becomes nothing more than a series of sound effects to some listeners.
It’s an album you have to trust to carry itself on its own terms. There are no choruses to hold it up; the album sort of floats — or maybe stomps — through. The listener has to be comfortable enough to let the record turn over without tensing about where or what it explores. And it does touch on heavy subjects, often in fumbled, sort of misshapen ways.
Take the track “Inoculate the Innocuous,” which is seemingly about needing to take drugs for cancer treatment, though the lyrics are few enough to allow for alternative readings. A minute-or-so into the track, lead vocalist Thorburn (who now occasionally releases music under the stage name Nick Diamonds) singsong whispers, “Somewhere in the asshole of my eye / There’s a muscle which relaxes when you cry.” It’s an ugly, anatomically-horrific visual, but it’s one of the lyrics that I find myself turning over in my head most often from any song that I know.
The “asshole of my eye” metaphor could be a discussion of grief lensed through self-loathing, it could be a play on pupils expanding, it could be dressed-up nonsense hinting at depth. It’s not really the intention that matters to me (though Genius assures me it’s a pun on the iris sphincter muscle); to risk sounding like That Guy, it’s the fact that, despite many promising interpretations, I can’t know for certain what “the asshole” of an eye may mean. It’s sung with such sincerity too, like I should know what this whole enterprise hints at, like it’s so natural, all while I’m being led through a lyrical funhouse — it doesn’t matter what I think it may mean, just that I know it means something in the rest of the album’s crunched-up, obtuse narrative.
“Inoculate the Innocuous” is the most down the album evers sounds, and its lyrical and sonic sparseness sticks out from the rest of the relatively high-energy tracklist. “Jellybones,” which is probably my favorite song from the album, however much that may matter, is an absolute romp comparatively, though both songs are about disease in one form or another. “Jellybones,” focusing on the eponymous and fictitious Jellybones illness, starts with a scrambled synthesizer and ramps up from there, folding in some excellent drumming and a nice backing guitar riff, all gaining energy up until the two-minute mark, where it takes a turn toward a lo-fi acoustic moment.
The album does play frequently with changes of sound and instrumentation. The little recorder solo that intros “Sea Ghost” is unexpected, no matter how many times you’ve heard the album. Whatever penny whistle and fiddle combo going on in the background of “Tuff Luff” sounds like it came right out of an Irish eight-year old’s daydream-turned-nightmare, especially as the lyrics announce that “We’re going down / In smoke flames” and the drums start to hit just a bit harder. It’s cartoonish and terrifying and so, so goddamn catchy.
It’s like the album is explaining death, grief and illness to me by telling me a joke and then setting itself on fire. I hesitate to say this, and I know I’m once again risking That Guy-ness, but it all borders on the tragicomic: “Tuff Ghost” is about trekking up a mountain and torturing your friends with a made up ghost story; the album begins with “I Don’t Wanna Die” and ends with “Ready to Die.” Yet, very few moments hit like they’re talking about death as a horrific, final thing. It’s more complicated, the unexpected and funny paired with the real and scary — I return to the “asshole of my eye” moment.
I don’t know of many other albums that have captured my imagination in the way this one does. Its chock-full of ghost stories, lyrical oddities and little moments of rebellion. It’s an album that doesn’t explain itself and doesn’t need to — it grows from that mystery and the inability of the long defunct Unicorns to repeat those performances, to unpin and iron out the album’s complexities from what would now be 16 years of repeat performances. To quote drummer Jamie Thompson, they “all hated it like 70 percent of the time,” but at least we all got one completely fun, completely bizarre album from the endeavor.