Every problem a band faces during its finite existence can be whittled down into two principle struggles. The first is the battle against the outside world, or more specifically, the battle to gain that initial recognition for itself amid a plethora of other upstarts and the jaded indifference such an overabundance engenders. Once this battle has been won, once the globe has been disarmed by what we hope is a unique voice, a band will then enter its next struggle, and in many cases, this is the most significant of the two, since it lasts for the remainder of the act’s unpredictable lifetime. This second war of attrition isn’t waged against other performers, musicians, or the wider milieu, but against the band itself, against the history it must simultaneously honor and transcend, and against the possibility of becoming a more or less emptying simulacrum of itself. Some artists rise to this challenge, recognizing perhaps that the constant resistance against a life of simulation is the very thing that makes them an artist. Others seem to trip themselves up sooner or later, crashing to earth as they run out of novel and distinguishing ideas, their works slowly becoming infested by the kinds of conventions and truisms they originally sought to refuse.
It may come as something of a surprise to read these comments in a review of a Man Man album, a band who over the past decade have more than earned their notoriety as not only a flamboyant troupe of vaudevillian anarchists, but also one of the most beautifully chaotic bands you’re likely to witness live. But as far as fifth album On Oni Pond goes, these remarks are entirely germane. That’s because the band’s fifth long-player does just enough to elicit the cognition that you’re listening to a Man Man record, but not enough to dispel the suspicion that you’re also listening to an imitation of “Man Man” playing an imitation of “pop” playing an imitation of “Man Man,” and so on ad infinitum. Almost everything distinctive about the band has been diluted to a nearly minimal level, and in its place, On Oni Pond offers songs that are far too controlled, formulaic, and sterile for their own good, despite their seemingly routine interpolations of “Man Man” signifiers. And even though this doesn’t necessarily make it a bad album, it does prevent it from being a meaningful one, one that might’ve deepened the band’s oeuvre and/or advanced music as an abstract whole.
Yet things could’ve been different, at least judging by “Pink Wonton” and its methodically rambunctious opening to the LP. It’s here that the obvious attempt to balance their former spazz with the “maturity” of more orthodox song structures coheres to its fullest effect, with the twangy zipping of the guitar and the circus slaps of electric organ unwinding with a certain measure of giddy restraint before losing themselves to a violent but always metered splurge of hyperactive drums and paranoid keys. However, even with this concentrated fit of mania and the strategically paced song it accelerates, there are already warning signs of what is to come, namely in the form of the sporadically trite lyrics that Honus Honus chooses to set the tone (“It’s the way that your kiss condemns me/ It makes me feel like I’m in Guantanamo” being a particularly flagrant example).
And sadly, from the early promise of “Pink Wonton,” the album only becomes more inhibited and depleted as it progresses, more a pale, adulterated silhouette of the bizarre and colorful records that preceded it. No doubt most of the Man Man hallmarks are in place — the frisky xylophones that periodically scuttle through “End Boss,” the reveling horns that circle the bridge of “Loot My Body,” and the subtle detour of style that transports “King Shiv” from vaguely Arabic techno to liquid reggae and then to neon electrofunk — but they’ve all been reduced, rationalized, and restricted to the point where they no longer make the major contribution to the band’s songs. Instead, they and the quartet’s former eccentricity simply appear as a peripheral supplement to verses, choruses, and middle eights that plod more than they run, provoking the impression that the older incarnations of Man Man are being aped largely to steal acceptance for what is a fundamentally different and less inspired group (i.e., a pop group whose songs aren’t quite catchy and penetrative enough to qualify as “great pop”). And it’s this simulation that imbues the otherwise invisible lyrics with a perverse fascination, since a portion of them could almost be read as an acknowledgement of this unfortunate turn of events. During the already cited R&B swagger of “Loot My Body,” Honus sings “Feel free to loot my body/ But please don’t form a band,” as if these lines were a forewarning that he would be expropriated by a body-snatching future version of himself, who would use his carcass to spearhead a superficially related act.
And it’s probably for the better that we can interpret On Oni Pond’s lyrics in this way, since they generally deteriorate as the record unfolds, sometimes trading in the kinds of platitude you’re more likely to hear from your grandma than from your supposedly idiosyncratic avant-rock band. For example, “Head On” and its expansion of the band’s characteristically saturnine balladry advises us to “Hold on to your heart/ Never let nobody take it over,” while the sub-funky chorus of “Paul’s Grotesque” gifts us with the momento mori of “Nobody knows where the time goes,” which in fact is arguably interesting when viewed through the prism of simulation, since aging itself can be viewed as the loss of the ability to forge a convincing mimesis of an earlier self, which is exactly what appears to be happening to Man Man.
Their mining and reappropriation of the past isn’t necessarily a problem, but On Oni Pond reworks its inherited elements into traditional forms that are overly predictable and overly polite, depriving most of the tracks of focus and progressions that might sharpen heartbeats or induce hormone secretion. In “Pyramids,” the spry, calisthenic body-popping of the verse dutifully railroads into a transient, xylophone-sped chorus, returns to itself, veers unsurprisingly back into the ringing chorus, and then, before seeing out the rest of the song, drops into what can only be an obligatory bridge involving puffy moans of guitar that rise into the wails of a semi-clichéd solo. When the components of its tracks are as limited as this — both in terms of their number and in terms of their individual impact and interest — the album comes across as a little inconsequential and shallow, and anything thrown briefly into the mix to “shake things up” usually fails, since each respective verse quickly returns unchanged to efface whatever difference a contrasting bar or two might’ve made. And it’s because of this peculiarly straitened and circumscribed treatment of onetime quirks and quiddities, of the shibboleths that endowed the band with their particular identity, that Man Man lapse into the aforementioned hollow simulacrum of themselves.
But like the Baudrillardian simulacrum, On Oni Pond provides less an authentic reproduction of a former reality than an uncanny imposture that is so tempered and sullied by various concessions to popular norms, codes, and tropes (i.e., to “pop” structure, to conventional Western harmony, to high-fidelity production, to earnest balladry) that it effectively dissolves what it attempts to simulate in the very attempt to simulate it. This wouldn’t be so regrettable if what resulted was hyperreal — that is, more vivid and vibrant that the “reality” it dysfunctionally mimes — but in the end, most of it turns out hypo-real, turns out less enticing and engaging than its eroding object, and this more than anything else is what makes On Oni Pond such a disappointment.