Neil Cicierega turned 30 last week. That feels significant to me; 30 is still pretty young in the real world, but in the online world that Neil grew up in, anyone in their thirties was a certified old fogey. Hard to imagine that the perpetually teenage-looking Neil Cicierega has been making music under the Lemon Demon banner for half his life now, and even longer if you count the mostly instrumental electronic stuff he did as Trapezoid. And though it must suck to be locked into a band name you came up with when you were 15 (nothing against it, but I don’t think he imagined he’d still be using it a decade and a half later), it does mean that Lemon Demon has made a name for itself, which is great. I mean, no offense to Neil, but in 2003, I couldn’t figure out why exactly he wanted to become a musician; he wasn’t very good instrumentally, couldn’t really sing, and besides he was already Mr. Animutation. But by his third album Hip to the Javabean I started to get it, and he improved on every subsequent release. He stopped being known as Mr. Animutation shortly after that, and in 2006 scored what could reasonably be called a hit – “Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”. I’m guessing you’ve heard it.
Since then, Neil’s done a dozen other things that have gone viral, some of which you’ve probably seen without knowing who it was. A lot of this came at the expense of Lemon Demon, which was only semi-active since 2008. But he released some individual tracks which were surprisingly great, many of which wound up on the Nature Tapes EP. Between that and some of the demos he was showing off, it was clear that the next Lemon Demon album was going to be a monster.
Not only was Spirit Phone worth the wait, it also functions as a culmination of Neil’s entire music career to this point. It’s easy to picture a 15-year old Neil imagining himself making albums like this one day, full of songs that hit that sweet spot between addictive, bizarre, and intricate, much like the stuff he was mining for his Animutations. At one point he was mostly aping John Linnell – now you can describe his music as a mixture of Sparks, Oingo Boingo, and Devo. Certainly he’s hit that area before – think “Subtle Oddities”, “This Hyper World”, or “The Machine” – but Spirit Phone hammers it for nearly an hour straight. Much like Kimono My House, there comes a point where you think “Christ, is the whole album going to be like this?”
One of the big differences is that Neil’s given himself a lot of time to work on these songs – “Eighth Wonder” dates back to 2009, and some like “Reagonomics”, “Cabinet Man”, and “Ancient Aliens” first showed up in 2012. The other is that he’s working primarily on the keyboards rather than strumming out four-chorders on the guitar; a lot of these songs are based off a wicked chiptune synth riff. Which is the sort of thing he’s much better with, by the way. Certainly the guitars are still there, though they’re mostly electrified, more for the noise than the melody. Gone is the Neil who sings about Crayola and Stick Stickly; many of the songs on Spirit Phone are miniature horror stories, with dark lyrics that are often directly at odds with the music, similar to what They Might be Giants do but a bit more deranged. Look, anyone who can turn a line like “I’m digging up your coffin/And pouring out the contents” into a massive earworm is some kind of genius in my book. And his vocals have improved; I mean really, if this genre can be okay with Mark Mothersburgh and Elvis Costello, I’m sure we can handle Neil Cicierega.
But let’s face it, this album is all about the hooks, the boatload of massive, Earth-destroying hooks that pepper, let’s see, all fourteen tracks here. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really – it’s easy to point to “Touch-Tone Telephone” and “Cabinet Man” as the sort of bouncy, grin-inducing singles that we wish the radio was playing in 2016. But that’s only because they come early in the album – the reality is that nearly all of it’s like that. He does slow it down from time to time, but even on “I Earn My Life”, one of the album’s few introspective cuts, he can’t resist but follow the chorus with a schizoid instrumental break. That’s definitely a good thing though, since any “but seriously…” moment could deflate the whole thing, and it’s important that the slower tunes (“No-Eyed Girl”, “Spiral of Ants”) are just as fun as the hyperactive ones. Really, Neil is taking a page out of the They Might be Giants handbook – give your albums longevity by writing so many impossibly catchy songs that they can’t all be processed at once. I’ve been listening to this album for the last six months and I’m still shocked at how great some of it is.
Of course, that’s me – I have an affinity for Sparks, Cardiacs, Gentle Giant, Polysics, Andrew W.K., or really any kind of Zonk Pop. The other layer to this is Neil’s lyrics and general attitude towards everything, which might raise an eyebrow if you’re not familiar with his work. He’s a remarkably funny dude, but often works on a high-concept level that doesn’t exactly make it clear what the joke is, if there even is one. The first track here is about necromancy, though I think it might be a metaphor for Michael Jackson’s Xscape album, plus it features an ending that’s truly strange if you’re not familiar with the “Thriller” video. The concepts get weirder from there; there’s a song where a man turns into an arcade machine (“Cabinet Man”), a sexjam about mummification (“Sweet Bod”), and one that is potentially about Donald Trump (“Man-Made Object”). The line “I’m Ronald Reagan, Baby” appears in a chorus and there’s a song called “As Your Father I Expressly Forbid It”. Believe it or not this is a step back from his last release, which had one song that consisted of nothing but titles of sitcoms, and an instrumental about Adrian Brody getting sucked into the sun and conquering the entire universe. But it’s still, in many ways, the strangest album you’ll hear this year.
Musically, it’s his best one yet, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Especially if you consider the surrounding material – the Nature Tapes EP (which is about as good) and the 13 bonus tracks included here. It’s clear that Neil’s reached a new gear, one that quite frankly I didn’t think he had. It’s tough to name highlights since so much of this rules, but I’ll say that “Touch-Tone Telephone”, “Cabinet Man”, “Eighth Wonder”, “Reaganomics”, and “I Earn My Life” are the sort of songs that I find myself thinking about all day long. Moving on: “Ancient Aliens”, for it’s uncanny resemblance to Propaganda-era Sparks, “Soft Fuzzy Man” and “As Your Father I Expressly Forbid It” for their wacko synth riffs, and “No Eyed Girl”, for actually being quite pretty. But yeah, good stuff all around.
Ultimately, your tolerance for this is going to depend on how much you appreciate gonzo-pop in general. Certainly there is a group of people for which is album is going to be a dream come true and if you like some of the artists mentioned thus far I strongly suggest you at least give this a shot. It is catchier than Devo, bouncier than the B-52’s, and more consistent than Pet Sounds.