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Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Thank God For Mental Illness


1) Spanish Bee; 2) It Girl; 3) 13; 4) Ballad Of Jim Jones; 5) Those Memories; 6) Stars; 7) Free And Easy, Take 2; 8) Down; 9) Cause I Love Her; 10) Too Crazy To Care; 11) Talk - Action = Shit; 12) True Love; 13) Sound Of Con­fusion.

Okay, this one is actually more like a friendly post-scriptum to the two biggies from the same year. The first twelve tracks are mostly acoustic or acoustic-based, feature an absolute minimum of songwriting, and rarely go over three minutes — truly a record that could have been planned, written, recorded and released by someone like Anton in a matter of three days. The last track, included, I believe, mainly in accordance with the «leave no space unfilled» strategy, is a lengthy collage that features several minutes of street noises (cars, more cars, and still more cars), and then a bunch of lo-fi recordings that mostly constitute alternate versions of old songs from Space­girl and Methodrone. So yeah, just like that.

Actually, the first half is rather nice. At least it moves around at a larger variety of tempos than Second Request, and the short song lengths are also quite welcome. There are no highlights or lowlights — the point is largely to imitate various shades of acoustic pop and folk-rock circa 1965-66 which, at different times, will remind you of the Beatles in their Rubber Soul period, the Stones in their Aftermath period, the Kinks in their Face To Face period, the Easy­beats in their ʽFriday On My Mindʼ period, Dylan in either his Another Side or his Blonde On Blonde period, and of... uh... ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ as sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary (ʽThose Memo­riesʼ). The only catch is that these are all Newcombe songs, and he predictably injects them with large dosages of his own bleak, romance-without-answer personality.

Arguably the least predictable track is the first one, ʽSpanish Beeʼ, where, to the sound of Spanish guitars and castanets, over which additional guitars drone in morose tones, Newcombe states that "This hopeless century, I've lived all alone" and that "I could have died, because of your greed". Whose greed is not exactly clear — but what is clear is that the dark Spanish style agrees with the BJM just as well as dark Anglo-Saxon folk or Afro-American blues motives. Another thing that certainly separates these acoustic tunes from all their influences is the endless pessimism and skepticism which they are soaked in — even within these thirty minutes, there is a general feel of total hopelessness that, in the Sixties, you couldn't even get from such kings of «mope rock» as The Doors (who played it on a grand theatrical level rather than on the «ordinary routine» level of Newcombe). Besides, even the Doors had some simple love songs — with Newcombe, the idea of a simple love song is always accompanied with the presupposition of «want her, need her, can never get her, not in a million years». In a philosophical sense, too — where «getting her» means much more than just a sexual liaison, and is essentially impossible in a Kantian sense.

One thing that seriously bugs me, though, is that once again it all smells of a self-conscious ap­proach. The LP title — Thank God For Mental Illness — seems awfully clever and uncomfor­tably true (considering how closely for comfort great art is often tied in with mental illness), but we do not regularly see actual madmen in art psychoanalyzing themselves (I mean, the above­mentioned Jim Morrison was definitely deranged, but could you see The Doors naming one of their albums this way?). This casts a shadow of self-absorption and maybe even unwarranted nar­cissism on the songs — like, who really is this Newcombe guy to appropriate songwriting and emotion-wrenching techniques from all these giants of the Sixties for his own egotistical pur­poses? Rewriting the classics is, after all, an act of arrogance, and if the arrogance is unjustified, the ship goes down fairly quickly. Oh, okay, at least the guy actually does drugs, so that's some sort of consolation-justification, I guess. He's legit... not really, no.

But if you don't take it too seriously, the record offers some quirky fun that is at least much easier to sit through than the endless slow drones of Second Request. I find it hard (if not useless) to discuss the individual songs — unless in terms of how they rearrange, reroute, and rewire the classics — but I found it easy fun listening to them, and in the light of this, I can disregard the awful (as usual) album cover and give the record a very lightweight thumbs up. And you can just detach and destroy the ʽSound Of Confusionʼ part — it works much better as just a thirty minute long album.


  1. Wrong artwork.

    And technically, I think I could picture the Doors purposely making reference to mental illness, though perhaps not self-conscious. But then didn't Celebration of the Lizard have this section?: Once I had a little game/I liked to crawl back in my brain/I think you know the game I mean/I mean the game called 'Go Insane'

  2. The only BJM album I know. I guess I'm easily pleased, but as long as this guy can write a song like "It Girl" - I'm all right.

  3. This is a sane review of this album. "Thank God for Mental Illness" is good, but not THAT good. (I'm not factoring in the hideous artwork and typography. For anyone working in design, BJM should be a case study in what not to do.)

    GS's review is a welcome contrast to AllMusic's breathless hype:

    "At the risk of further belaboring a rather obvious point, with Thank God for Mental Illness, their third collection of absolutely stunning music in less than a year, the Brian Jonestown Massacre parallels the prolific and effortless brilliance of the Rolling Stones at their fevered late-1960s peak; the sheer scope of their achievements is stunning -- rarely are bands quite so productive, or quite so consistently amazing."