When Southern Records announced their reissue of Nomeansno’s Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie earlier this year, they made no secret of how divisive the record was upon its release in 1998. Between the ballooning song lengths and the band’s increasingly melodic sensibilities, maybe a lot of longtime listeners were feeling left out in the cold, with even the album’s supporters dubbing it “inaccessible.” In the rosy glare of critical hindsight, though, it’s harder to see what got everyone’s knickers all bunchy. While the Victoria prog punks’ 10th album captures the Wright brothers at their most expansive, it sacrifices nothing in the way of immediacy, and the snicker-snack shifts in rhythm and tempo all fit naturally into the songs’ natural trajectory.
Besides, expansiveness really seems to agree with them; the two best songs are the longest ones. The title track might clock in at eight minutes, but it’s as pure an example of Nomeansno’s particular brand of damage as you could ask for. A nice spare arrangement puts the Wrights’ sinister rhythm front and center, with Tom Holliston’s guitar adding accents to the verses and a righteous sense of fury to the thrashy post-chorus instrumental passages. Each verse is framed as a ransom note written to a rich man whose wife, son, and daughter have been kidnapped, one after another, and bound with “ten sticks of dynamite/stuck together with duct tape” around their heads. It all culminates with the kidnappers coming after the rich man himself, admitting:
“We have no political beliefs.
We don’t want your fucking money.
There’s just one thing that motivates us.
We hate your fucking guts.”
The menace of Tom Wright’s delivery elevates these pronouncements to a level of genuine hilarity while maintaining a sense of paranoia and danger.
On the other side of the coin sits “The World Wasn’t Built in a Day.” While “Dance” resonates with the black-hearted comedy of their college radio hit “Dad,” “World” reminds us that, on his best days, Tom Wright could be one hell of a lyricist. The sprawling, surreal narrative follows a man who dreams that everyone he ever knew died simultaneously in a series of random accidents. The prospect initially fills him with elation that soon cools into a lonely desperation, only to end with an oblique moment of epiphany. There’s an almost hardboiled quality to the language, with the protagonist driving down darkened streets where “Streetlamps cast their mockery of light” and enjoying a chance encounter with a woman who lets her hand fall on his leg and “there she let it stray.” All this is set against a portentous bass line that remains constant and almost completely unchanging throughout the song’s nine and a half minutes.
Other songs explore themes of mental illness (“I Can’t Stop Talking”), boorish behavior (“I’m an Asshole”), and sexual abuse, one in the form of horror-story reversal (“The Story Must Be Told”) and the other in a far more unsettling look inside the mind of a violent misogynist (“The Rape”). The album snaps back and forth between moments of silliness and introspection as easily as it switches gears in time signatures. If you’re not willing to keep up, the radical shifts in tone might put you off, but for those who revel equally in the gallows humor of Big Black and the introspection of Richard Hell, Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie should provide plenty to love.