As a fringe all-star of Chicago’s underground, Bobby Conn, the jester in capitalism’s royal court and self-proclaimed Antichrist, has few true peers in the music industry. For much of his solo career, he remained an enigmatic, contradictory figure, approaching any contact with the press as a performance art tableaux in which he could wax eloquent on the spiritual benefits of his Continuous Ca$h Flow (CCF) system. In this regard, his closest contemporaries seem not to be musicians at all, but rather social commentators and deep-cover comedians like Stephen Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen. Yet even as Conn has become more candid in his interviews and more open about his creative process, he still remains a more conflicted and convoluted character than either of these performers. It’s always possible to see Stephen Colbert the entertainer winking at us from behind the mask of Stephen Colbert the media demagogue, but Conn’s alter-ego can rarely keep his story straight for even the duration of a single song; his paranoid ramblings and egomaniacal boasts spring from a deeper ambivalence about America’s global impact and his own complicity with it.
As a result, Conn’s politically-charged lyrics often cut in multiple directions at once; one minute you think you’re in on the joke, only to discover that you’ve been the butt of it all along. “You can keep your Nobel Prizes/ We just want our country back,” Conn proclaims on “Gov’t,” only to assert in the next couplet, “We want to worship our comedians/ So don’t confuse us with the facts.” The well-intentioned liberal is just as likely to be at the receiving end of Conn’s poison pen as the devious political structures they oppose. Songs like “Can’t Stop th’ War” would seem like so much cynical defeatism if not for Conn’s own self-identification with the left’s ineffectuality. Thus, his specialty is a particularly unsexy brand of protest song: a protest song stripped of all romanticism and self-righteousness, a protest song that longs for a better world while disclosing its own stake in our corrupted one.
Of equal interest is Conn’s prescience, not so much in his apocalyptic visions of societal collapse (thankfully) but rather in his appropriation of decidedly unhip musical influences into his repertoire. In a 2007 interview with Splendid, Conn stated, “…I’m trying to take the music that punk rock was fighting against, the prog and the disco. To me, that’s, in a weird way, it’s more punk than punk is these days.” It’s a sentiment not so far removed from the work of AM radio, easy listening apologists like Ariel Pink and Tim Heidecker, nor from the confrontational banality of James Ferraro. Conn continues to explore this defiantly unhip aesthetic, albeit in a decidedly more aggressive vein than the other artists mentioned. The continued presence of his wife and longtime musical collaborator Monica Boubou on the electric violin infuses songs like “Face Blind” and “Walker’s Game” with a rhinestoned disco glitz. Other songs, like the title track and “Underground Vktm,” flirt with synth-pop schmaltz. The latter is one of the album’s clear stand-outs, a curmudgeonly diatribe against nostalgia-obsessed youth that swipes the famous ascending synth line from OMD’s “Enola Gay.”
Macaroni as a whole capitalizes on Conn’s strengths, both as a political satirist and as a Frankenstein-esque mad scientist specializing in defunct musical genres. The album is consistently entertaining, but lacking in some of the really revelatory moments of his earlier records. Still, like the titular pasta, Bobby Conn is a dependable pick-me-up, albeit one with a good deal more substance and complexity than you’re likely to find in a box of Kraft.