I first became aware of Momus back in 1994. I was standing in front of the goodie closet at the Tokyo offices of Nippon Columbia, the big Japanese record company. I was greedily loading myself up with as much free product (mostly jazz CDs) as I was going to be able to carry in my luggage back home to Los Angeles when I noticed the extravagantly packaged CD of his Timelord album with its distinctive Pierre et Gilles cover portrait and slipcase.
“What’s this?” I quizzed one of the record execs who spoke better English than the others.
“Ah…it’s…ah… ah… music for gay people!” he said laughing, after thinking about it for a moment.
I took this to mean “witty” “camp” or simply “in the same ballpark as Marc Almond” and so I asked him “Can I have this, too, then?”
The following day I saw who I immediately realized was this very same Momus character—he stood out in the context of Japan, as any non-Japanese tends to in Tokyo—and although he seemed rather effete and fashionable, he was with a super hot Japanese girl and he didn’t seem to be gay at all. (In retrospect, I think the record exec had heard “The Homosexual” a 1988 song by Momus—but not about him—and just assumed something that a language barrier didn’t help with. Having said that, he wasn’t really that far off either and I did know vaguely what he meant, which is the important thing anyway.)
Timelord is a strange, but intriguing album, a love letter sent by Momus (real name Nick Currie) across time and space to just one person—a young woman of Bangladeshi descent he’d fallen in love with whose parents had her shipped off to an arranged marriage when they found out about him. Currie described it as “the album that shot itself in the foot” but there’s a lovely quality to it.
Like The Visitor in The Man Who Fell To Earth who hopes his wife on her distant planet will hear his music on the radio, Momus hopes this music will cut through the static interference of fundamentalist Islam to reach Shazna.
The song that really stood out to me first on Timelord was “Enlightenment,” a number that waxed poetic about a certain sexually promiscuous person—this would be Momus, about to settle down in a serious relationship—sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for the results of his AIDS test.
I realize that this doesn’t sound romantic, but it really is when you think about what he’s singing:
But tell me you’ll be there
When I’m knocked out flat
With a drip feed in my arm
And tell me you’ll be there
When the swansong starts to fade
And when a life support machine
Supports me in a coma you’ll be there
And when I’m just a cabbage save me from the spade
So tell me you’ll be there
If I ever find
I’ve only got one kidney left
And tell me you’ll be there
When I’ve only got one eye
And say that you’ll still be my baby
When a wheelchair is my chair
You’ll be there upon the day I die
And tell me you’ll be there
When my head’s on backwards
And my skin is turning green
You’ll be there
When my brain has gone to sand
And tell me you’ll still be my baby
When my guts are on the floor
And when I’m catatonic
I’ll still be your man
A terribly post-modern take on the Beatles “When I’m 64,” isn’t it?
The lyrics were unlike anything else I think I’d ever heard before in a pop song. Wordplay and sentiment so intelligent, so unexpected, so idiosyncratic. So wonderfully and unabashedly smart and literate and funny. And morbid!
Momus is an absolute chameleon as a songwriter and sheds musical styles from album to album—vaudeville, New Wave, synthpop, Brechtian cabaret, Baroque, acid house, folk—as I would soon find out fanning through his catalog, which at this point includes over 30 (mostly fantastic) full length albums. To be sure, Currie has a “thing” that he does—it’s very consistently him, but also ever evolving, too.
Truly there is no one even remotely like Momus on the music scene today. The man is brilliant, a global treasure and the greatest songwriter that Scotland has ever produced, but his profile has remained stubbornly obscure, much to the consternation of his fervent, but admittedly small, fanbase. Momus is bigger in Japan, but he’s probably not all that big there, either. As the man himself once said “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” It’s ridiculous that he’s not much better known, and widely revered, but I still envy anyone just discovering his music anyway.
Momus rendered in watercolors for the cover of El Pais newspaper’s magazine by Jose Manuel Hortelano-Pi
A grand new three CD Momus retrospective, selected by the artist himself and spanning some 30 creatively fertile years, Public Intellectual, An Anthology 1986-2016 (out now on Cherry Red and streaming on Spotify) is the perfect place to start if you find yourself curious about this most singularly singular of musical entertainers. But because I want to make it easy on you, I’ve selected a few of my own very favorite Momus tracks and performances for your listening enjoyment and embedded them here, courtesy of Cherry Red.
Personally I prefer what would now be termed, I suppose, “mid-period” Momus, but this is not to say that he’s ever been any less than at the height of his powers throughout his prolific career. His most recent material is just as good and just as inspired as the music he produced when he was in his 20s. His first albums are as good as his later albums, even if I personally tend to grab the 90s material when I want to listen to a little Momus. It’s all different, but all obviously Momus and the quality is always remarkably high.
Momus on the song (from the liner notes of Public Intellectual):
You’re settling into a longterm relationship in the early 90s: you take an AIDS test. But do you really want to know the answer, considering the fact that at this point (as Derek Jarman was in the process of proving) to be HIV-positive was to be sentenced to death? Expand that question a little and you get to Adorno and Horkheimer’s doubts about Enlightenment in general. The song’s coda is spookily visionary, asking: will you still love me when I’ve only got one eye?
Dig the Pizzicato Five sample. It drove me nuts trying to figure out what it was.
Much more Momus after the jump…