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Seven songs into Lungfish’s ninth and latest album, Love Is Love, vocalist, tattooist, and shaman-in-training Dan Higgs delivers a lyric that might as well be a statement of purpose: “Unfold the cranium,” he sings matter-of-factly. “Walk in a dream.”
Getting simultaneously cerebral and surreal is exactly what the Baltimore-based vocalist has been doing for the past 15 yearsthough you shouldn’t feel bad if you’ve never noticed: Even freakier than Higgs’ apocalyptic lyrics and contortionist stage moves is Lungfish’s utter lack of careerist impulses. The art-punk quartet’s regular-as-clockwork albums are only occasionally followed by tours (or even shows), and though any one Lungfish disc might lead you to believe that the band is progressive-minded, even überfans will admit there’s little change from album to album. Heck, most of the group doesn’t even look all that different than it did back in the beginning. (Somewhere, a portrait of guitarist Asa Osborne is growing very, very old.)
But as much as Lungfish stays the same, there are a few things that always change: Bass players never stick around for long, for one thing. And, more important, the lyrics have never been as static as their settings. In fact, they sometimes seem to improve in inverse proportion to the complexity of the music. Not that the music was ever that complicated. Like a lot of raging, anthemic punk albums of its time, the band’s 1991 debut, Talking Songs for Walking, relied more on noise and dynamics than clever songwriting. Pushing repetitive, ringing riffs past boring and clear into hypnotic, these guys distinguished themselves as minimalists from the start, even if they almost always adhered to traditional verse-chorus-verse pop-song structure.
That is, until recently. The new Love Is Love abandons that “chorus” part entirely, resulting in songs reminiscent of nothing so much as mid-’60s Bob Dylanthink “Desolation Row” recast as droning posthardcore. But unlike Dylan, Higgs has only recently begun to toss his word salads with any sense of meaning. Don’t get me wrong, now: I love those bizarro Lungfish lyrics as much as the next guy. Even at his most obtuse, Higgswhom The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry editor Alan Kaufman called “one of the greatest Spoken Word poets of the Nineties”has always been an impressive imagist. Does it matter if we know what it really means to beseech a “long locust leg” or “ejaculate in zero gravity” or vomit up “a blinking eye”? Not really. It’s always been enough that such phrases conjure some singular mental picturesand sound pretty good doing it.
But Love Is Love is notable because we get it both ways: strange and sensical. When Higgs growled the words to “Love Will Ruin Your Mind” on 1998’s Artificial Horizon, he was simply assuming his usual role as psychedelic contrarian. But now when the guy sings about matters of the heart, there’s a little…well, warmth. A little humanity. Take the new disc’s title track, for example: “Love is love in the life of all life,” Higgs blares over the cymbal-free rumble. “Love is love in the marrow of new bone/Love is love in wind and shade/Love is love in truth and falsehood.”
Just so you don’t go thinking that Higgs has been born again or anything, the lumbering “Fearfully and Wonderfully” counters the good vibrations with some sacrilegeor at least a little darkness. “Holy, holy Christ Beast,” Higgs croaks as Osborne unspools a distorted modal line. “Christ Beast bear your message/About a God-form that’s formless and forming in your baby, in your mind.” The jangling ballad “Hear the Children Sing” presents a similarly tweaked take on Christian rock: “What is Christic/Can’t be recognized/What’s stretching out/Is not the kingdom.”
It’s clear that Higgs has a much more sophisticated view of things biblical than your average punk. What’s harder to gauge here is whether it’s an academic curiosity or genuine devotion. Either way, it’s obvious that our man in Charm City has been thinking about the afterlife quite a bit lately. On Love Is Love, the singer conjures corpses, sarcophagi, open graveseven the reaper himself, who turns out to be gentlemanly enough to hold the door for you while horrifically reflecting your visage. It may sound like the stuff of stoner poetry or black metal, but it ain’t. Higgs is too smart for thattoo grown-up, too aware of both philosophy and form.
A song away from the end of the disc, when Osborne and bassist Sean Meadows dial down the amps and drummer Mitchell Feldstein pulls out the brushes, Higgs turns almost rhapsodic: “I know one day we shall rest,” he sings at the beginning of “Peace Mountains of Peace.” “It will be our time at last.” Sure, that statement is surrounded by the usual hallucinatory baggagea “navel of desolation” here, a beacon for “immediate revolution” therebut unlike the Higgs anti-narratives of old, the track is fairly unguarded. You might even call it hymnlike: “Do you bring news of a future age?/A future age when we shall rest/Veiled only by the wilderness.” In the context of the Lungfish oeuvre, that’s just about as direct as it gets.
And that’s why, as much as it might walk and talk like your typical Lungfish disc, Love Is Love is really something else. It’s a devolution, actuallythe band’s simplest record to date. Higgs’ lyrics have never been less baroque, and the songs themselves are barely there: the folk-before-there-was-even-rock cuts “This World,” “No False Suns,” and “Child of Chaos” each spare no more than three chords apiece.
Yet paradoxically, Love Is Love also feels like a step forward. After all, Lungfish has never been a band that’s redefined or reacted. The group just sheds and refines, constantly trying to create a more perfect Lungfish album. Higgs & Co. are traditionalists and tradition all in one, which is why their discography often makes the most sense taken as a whole. They have no watershed moment, no Sgt. Pepper’s or A Love Supreme.
Love Is Love is not that moment, either. But it does stand on its own like no other Lungfish record. Granted, that might not carry much weight outside the cult. But if this album isn’t enough to get Higgs noticed, then nothing ever will. CP