By Peter Lindblad
Talking about the surrealistic painting he made that graces the cover of the Meat Puppets’ latest album, Sewn Together, Kirkwood says — half-jokingly perhaps — of the myriad stitches it has, “I can directly trace that influence in my work to my lifelong love of Frankenstein. I just like the way they look. You get a lot of bang for your buck with stitches.”
It’d be easy to see something else in the artwork, say the stitches serving as a metaphor for healing old wounds. Of which the Meat Puppets have many, what with the death of the brothers’ mother (1996) and Curt’s brother Cris’ well-documented troubles with drugs, including his wife’s overdose in 1998, and with the law — he served 18 months in prison, after which came a rehabilitation that can only be called miraculous. In fact, there’s a song on Sewn Together called “Clone” that speaks of “magic scientists … patching up the fabric of the soul” as swirling vocals, cascading piano and an ever-shifting wall of background guitar distortion scramble the senses with its lush beauty and hallucinatory sonic witchcraft.
But, no. Even the title of the record, a typically adventurous, if brighter than normal, hash of mind-altering psychedelia, stoner-rock jams and desert moods that came out May 12 on Megaforce Records, has nothing to do with all that. Nor does it refer to any sort of pieced-together approach to making music, or any tighter group dynamic now that the Meat Puppets’ problems seem to be in the past.
“It’s just poetry, imagery with a veneer of common sense, probably poking fun at my lack of day-to-day ambition and how easily lured in I am by my hollow promises to myself,” explains Curt.
Kirkwood isn’t fooling anyone. Though the Meat Puppets’ slacker image is not forced or contrived and is, most definitely, the real deal, artistically speaking they’ve always aimed high. From their halcyon days on the SST Records label in the mid-’80s, where their love of country music and their hippie appearance made them outsiders in a world of speed-driven, attack-dog punk, even as they whipped up great furies of hardcore noise, the Meat Puppets have continually — whether they strived for it or not — produced wildly original, impossible-to-categorize music that garnered them almost as many enemies as fans.
Sewn Together is another curve ball that buckles the knees. All the mysticism and exotic atmospheres of the band’s last album, 2007’s Rise To Your Knees, still hang in the surprisingly dewy air of this magnolia-lined Southern mansion of a record, but there’s vibrant energy and a vibrant pop bounce in the band’s step on the title track, “Love Mountain,” “Rotten Shame” and in the locomotive rhythms and mandolin picking of the country-flavored “I’m Not You.” And the band’s eclectic sound is full and rich, and at times, it even glows, especially on the mysterious, dream-like “Sapphire.”
“That’s a combination of how we sound and that sound going to a real two-inch tape through a classic Neve board,” says Curt. “Just as I wanted … lucky.”
Wonderfully sequenced, there’s an easy flow from one song to the next on Sewn Together, and that’s no accident.
“It’s really the first time I’ve gotten involved in [sequencing], and it took a bit of time to settle with one,” says Curt. “After much thought, and upon arriving at this basic order, I took the opinions of my bro and Robert John at Megaforce into consideration on a few tracks and was able to reach this comfortable sequence. I generally feel too fair to each song to put them into a list, and it winds up being my least favorite part of album making.”
Far more to Curt’s liking is the lovely, nuanced piano playing of William Joseph that fills “Sapphire,” “Smoke” and “Clone.” Of Joseph, Curt says he added ” … professional, brilliant musicianship … something we usually fake. His playing is the high point of these songs to me.”
Missing from the array of instruments this time around is the “guit-jo” creation of their own making that expanded the palette of Rise To Your Knees. No matter. The Meat Puppets had plenty of toys to play with this time around.
“No ‘guit-jo’ but tons of different cool guitars and that insanely nice ’35 Gibson mando[lin],” says Curt.
Lyrically, Sewn Together is, as usual, a puzzle without a solution. The wordplay is dreamy and intoxicating and easy to get lost in, a feeling Curt shares. “I’m always detached. These are my attempts to reach out from the void.”
And once again, so are the Meat Puppets. In many ways, Sewn Together is an extension of their SST classics Meat Puppets II (1984) and Up On The Sun (1985), but while it blurs the lines of punk and country and throws everything into the pot Grateful Dead style, it’s not so different from the more straightforward hard rock of their biggest-selling album, 1994’s Too High To Die, which featured the hit “Backwater.” It’s just another step forward in the evolution of a band that gleefully continues to defy convention.
“I don’t compare albums too much,” says Curt. “I try not to rip myself off … the fun yet hard part of writing, sometimes, is trying to go beyond what you think you’ve done already. Yet, there’s an appeal to me also in the easy familiarity in a band’s music. Descriptions of music are a challenge once you step away from the fundamentals and language of classical music and get into trying to describe rock and pop. I’ll give it a shot … ‘the Meat Puppets are plastic-rock.'”
As in elastic maybe? Or pliable? Otherwise, the last word that would come to mind with the Meat Puppets would be “plastic.”