Even without the obvious physical resemblance, it’s easy to see why Black Francis might be interested in the creature called the Golem. His lyrics have always been preoccupied with monsters and aliens and dark conspiracies, while his music — with its off-kilter chords and angular surf guitar solos — consistently pushes at the boundaries of the weird. Indeed, if Stephen Malkmus is the Gene Kelly of indie rock, then Black Francis is its Boris Karloff; no matter how much green makeup he’s wearing, he lets you see the uncanny kernel of human longing inside what otherwise might seem monstrous or perverse.
But Black’s latest album is also a soundtrack to a 1920 masterpiece of German expressionist cinema, The Golem: And How He Came Into the World, and the assignment gives Black a chance to revisit his past and, more importantly, his reputation. Set in a 16th-century Jewish ghetto, the film depicts Rabbi Loew’s efforts to protect his community by constructing a giant man of clay: a part-bodyguard, part-butler cyborg, with, of course, a heart of gold. Unsurprisingly, the Rabbi’s airtight plan quickly goes awry; asserting his own power, the monster first kicks a few locals in the taco (so to speak) and then, in his quest for a bit of loving, sets the ghetto on fire. Although set in the past, the film clearly offered its producers a chance to explore the Jewish prohibition against images in a thoroughly modern way. The Rabbi’s artistic sorcery — he creates both the Golem and then a small film out of thin air — brings down the wrath of God, suggesting perhaps that the worship of mass-produced icons and images (like, say, swastikas or giant red bullseyes) can only lead to doom.
Frank Black is no stranger to the dangers of public images or the wiles of public reputation. He’s made a career of creating avatars for himself and then bashing them down again, to the great thrill and frustration of his fans. As Pixies started to crash and burn, he sang of both the difficulties of protecting the b(r)and name and the need to abandon your own creations: “Go, go, little record, go/ It is named by some guy named Joe/ And the words are the letters of the words, said/ Electrically played for outer space and those of they who paid/ This song has twice occurred, and now its time to go away on holiday.” It’s interesting to think of Black’s past successes stalking, Golem-like, the world of independent music without him, vexing his future efforts as a musician. On The Golem, though, he most forcefully identifies with the Rabbi, whose faith crumbles alongside the world around him and whose only response is to remake it according to his own graven designs. The highlight occurs near the end of the album, in a song called “Custom all the Way,” a kick-ass ode to DIY garage art, a disposable aesthetic that means everything and nothing in the post-Pixies ghetto: And I conjured in the dark, and I spoke with evil’s son/ It’s like custom all the way, but I’ll smash your perfect parts when your task is done/ It’s like custom all the way…/ There ain’t nothing wrong with that, it’s like custom all the way.”
All of which is to say that Black Francis sounds fully energized here, and this album ranks, alongside Teenager of the Year and Dog in the Sand, as part of his best solo work to date. Both the film’s story and its expressionist imagery provide Black with the means to test his post-rock chops, and the album contains more than a few moments of sinister magic to delight longtime fans. In general, the material relies heavily on classic rock riffs and structures, building from gently strummed chords to crashing anthems; one hears more than a few requisite references to The Who’s Quadrophenia and Tommy, but there’s also a quirky dose of Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull, and even a bit of Cream. But Black lets it fly with some cool new instrumentation (dig those panpipes, man!) and some truly out-there avant-garde arrangements. There’s a tender ballad with a melting piano riff (“The Obedient Servant”), an ominous backward-string epic about doomed lovers (“Miriam and Florian”), and a sleaze-ball rocker with funky piano and some demon gibberish (“Astaroth”). All of this is more than ably backed by Black’s go-to collaborator Eric Feldman on keys, the late, great Duane Jarvis on stunning lead guitar, and Jason Carter on the kit.
Honestly, though, I liked the album a bit more after I watched the film. In fact, listeners should be aware that there are two versions of the album; one is a complete soundtrack to the film and the other is a “Rock Edited” version, which cuts out the incidental tracks and scrambles the tracklisting (to lesser effect). Unsurprisingly, Black’s intense — and intensely elliptical — tunes work extremely well against the surreal set designs and expressionist lighting of early German cinema; the connections between song and image are by turns subtle and surprising, and the experience as a whole is never less than riveting. (I’ve come back to it several times now). It’s interesting that Black chose to provide a soundtrack rather than a score. His songs stand on their own here; they start and stop at odd points in the film, and sometimes they do not seem to refer at all to what’s on the screen. Moreover, they don’t try to amplify or extend the emotions on the screen (à la John Williams or Hans Zimmer), but to interpret them. “The Maharal,” for example, both deepens and complicates the busy portrait of the Rabbi in the film; backed by a Roxy Music sax, Black sings of hidden despair: “My coat is long and black/ Like dreams collapsed with things I want but can’t get back/ I ain’t got jack…/ And all of this for nothing/ After all my huffing and puffing/ I’m back and forth and back and forth/ To prove I’m not bluffing.” But these dissonances only add to the experience, taking the expressionist program one step further. Indeed, after years of Pavlovian conditioning through soundtracks full of standardized musical pap, it’s quite astounding to hear Black reinvent the form with little more than his gravelly voice and a heavily reverbed quartet.
But who cares about the fate of the soundtrack. I’m just glad to know that Black Francis has got his sinister mojo back. It’s hard to watch your musical heroes grow old, especially as they struggle to master some monster style they created long ago. With this record, though, Black turns that style into a genuine language — a flexible idiom — one that can conjure up a whole weird world of new emotions and experiences. As he sings on “The Word,” “If you want a chance at necromance/ If you need spirits stirred/ You must have a spark/ You must know the dark/ You must know the word.” Here, for sure, Black has picked up his wand again and resurrected his old craft, proving (once more) to be a dark wizard of the word, sending forth all sorts of Golems to mess with our heads — and our hearts.