M.C. Escher’s 1936 sketch Still Life with Street was the graphic artist’s first piece to depict an impossible reality. Upon first glance, the eyes meet the foreground—a desk adorned with playing cards, a pipe, and stacked books—as well as a similarly tame background, a street scene looking down an alley between two adjacent buildings. The target of the visual field is quickly discovered to be an imposter; the eyes tell the brain that something’s amiss, though it’s all but impossible to discern. Two entirely separate planes of perspective are conjoined at a seam that the eye is impotent to unmask.
Pere Ubu deals in similar extremes of interpretation and reinvention—long capable of feats that twist our perceptions of the world around us. Like Escher’s sketch, the band’s 1978 debut, The Modern Dance, was a signpost for a change in the tides of their respective field. Pere Ubu realized new and radical modes of reimagining rock, and displayed fresh ways that it could be arranged and rearranged. It’s for this reason that, to many, they remain the quintessential art-rock band—providing the blueprint for how to bring the avant garde to the pop masses.
Thirty-five years later, Pere Ubu is still at it. Lead singer David Thomas has written a primer to accompany the band’s new album, Lady from Shanghai. It’s a gassy, pseudo-academic treatise on the obscure and unnecessarily complex methods used to write and record the album, the main one being something called “Chinese Whispers”—a brainstorming technique where the band members record individually, free from the constraints of formal practice and rehearsal. Boiled of its fat, “Chinese Whispers” is little more than a convoluted brand of the childhood game “telephone”—a way, in Thomas’s mind, to walk a middle ground between unruly improvisation and rigid meticulousness, and the resulting album is sophomoric, mawkish, and empty. Because individual performances were both figuratively and literally mailed in, it feels pieced together.
“And Then Nothing Happened” is every fruitful idea Thomas had during the Lady from Shanghai sessions distilled into about four minutes of actual music. The drums are motorik and infectious, the production on Thomas’s vocal is cavernous and immediate, and then at the very moment when things could begin to seem predictable, the whole song structure dissolves into an energetic rattle of percussive jingles, atonal guitar noise, and left-field tape music. If only the whole album sounded more like these few fleeting minutes.
Instead, the band’s trademark chaotic abandon—that relinquishment of total control to the whims of the moment—is nowhere to be found; there’s only motionless, circular progression along a predictable path. “414 Seconds” is dry and dispassionate, lacking any truly distinctive moments, while “Lampshade Man” conjures painful childhood memories of being helplessly placed on a rickety, spinning fair ride. It’s boring, repetitive, and worst of all, nauseating. For minutes on end, Thomas cyclically moans, “They say the truth hurts, just not bad enough.” The real truth is that the song should have ended three minutes earlier.
Lady from Shanghai, a mess of sonic blips and disorienting blotches of misshapen clutter, has no secrets; it’s impossible to dig deeper into something that’s only surface-deep. The album is inexplicably aimless, a work of misplaced ideas, methodologies, and unhappy accidents. Much of the blame can be placed on the mixing and production: Throughout, the most engaging sounds and hooks are consistently buried in oceans of white noise. Trying to unearth any gems here is a fool’s errand, like attempting to make out patterns in the sky while looking at the sun. It seems as if the itch for reinvention has flung Pere Ubu headlong into disillusionment. It’s not so much that the band’s store of ideas has been exhausted, but rather the concepts are in a state of malfunction, misfiring on all cylinders. Lady from Shanghai is the result of making music with insipid seriousness.