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Album Review

Vivid Testament to Man's Humanity

*** 1/2 THE RESIDENTS "Wormwood" ESD Records

April 27, 1999|MIKE BOEHM

"Wormwood" is an absorbing, richly imagined collection decked out in an array of synth-pop, cabaret and modern-minimalist-classical musical adornments. It is predictably irreverent toward a God perceived as raining destruction and torment on humanity.

The Residents have always had a dark, wry vision of the world, and most of the Bible tales they've chosen to retell here are among the most shocking, lurid and creepy stories known to humankind.

The album's big surprise, and the key to its excellence as an imaginative work, is the respect the Residents show for the Bible as literature. They may recoil at most of its theology, but they embrace its characters and stories.

Abetted, as usual, by guest singers taking the female roles, the Residents delve deeply into the psyches and feelings of people exalted--or, more often, afflicted--by their run-ins with divinity.

The musicians make the tales their own through vivid dramatization and humane sympathy for most of the characters (King David is the big exception, portrayed in "Bathsheba Bathes" as a lusting, soul-corrupted wielder of executive power).

The Abraham of the spooky, sinister "Kill Him!" recoils in amazement and horror, but obeys, when God calls for his son to be sacrificed: "Blood is thick, but God is thicker / I am sick, but he is sicker / God says, 'Die!' so I must kill him / But why does God want to kill children?"

Cain is seen distraught after slaying Abel in a crime of passion, having lashed out like an overwrought, jilted lover when God accepts Abel's gifts and scorns his own.

In "Judas Saves," the Residents elevate the New Testament's archvillain to heroic stature in an ingenious interpretation that sees him as a selfless partner in a team effort, with Jesus, to effect humanity's salvation: Jesus gets the glory; Judas is willing to endure posterity's loathing for setting the process in motion with a kiss that was not a betrayal, but an act of selfless collaboration.

In "Burn Baby Burn," based on an episode in which a girl dies to fulfill the rash oath of her father, Jepthah, the Residents give a chilling evocation of the terrible consequences of her blind faith in God (to whom the oath was sworn); they avoid the easy, mocking sneer and let the awesome consequence of unshakable belief speak for itself.

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