Some musicians just want to be left alone to create works that are meaningful on a personal level. They don’t seem to care if anyone understands their art; it could be taken at face value for all they care.
This is certainly the case for the Meat Puppets, a band whose four-decade-spanning, genre-bending discography has consistently disregarded musical norms in favor of whatever sounds good at the moment. Back with their original lineup for the first time since 1996, the Meat Puppets have released a new album, “Dusty Notes.”
“Dusty Notes” is probably their most thematic album yet, for better or for worse. Looking back to their previous work, the Meat Puppets love to tread off the beaten path. This is not at all the case on the new album. While the more acoustic, home-on-the-range ideas on “Dusty Notes” are intriguing, the songwriting is unoriginal and frustrating, not to mention the performances on the album, which are about as clean-cut and uninspired as anything by Imagine Dragons.
It would be hard to mention the Meat Puppets without hinting to their influence on Kurt Cobain and the rest of the ’80s and ’90s underground scene. During Nirvana’s 1993 “MTV Unplugged in New York” session, the Meat Puppets’ founding members Curt and Cris Kirkwood were invited on stage to help perform three songs from the 1984 Puppets’ album “II.”
In response to the overwhelming success of “Unplugged,” in 1994 the Meat Puppets released “Too High to Die,” a hearty grunge album containing their highest charting single to date, “Backwater.” This was the first time they had conformed to more predictable alt-rock norms, and it unsurprisingly gained them more of a mainstream fanbase. The Puppets’ eclectic sonic experimentation up to that point was nearly unparalleled, ranging from anti-folk to prog rock, poaching fans from other off-the-beaten-path groups of the ’80s like Swans and Hüsker Dü.
Now that all the grunge hype has calmed down, the Puppets have been able to take their music in whatever direction they please, writing songs just like they used to — for themselves.
“Dusty Notes” could be the Meat Puppets’ attempt at a country album, or perhaps it’s just a product of their current state of mind. Although the band may find these songs meaningful, from a layperson’s perspective they’re not. Tracks like “Warranty” and “On” are written and mixed with so little punk attitude and soul that they could be found on “Sesame Street.” The Even Raffi has more engaging songs.
Many of the tracks feature a non-traditional instrument in an attempt to make them a little more spicy. This comes off as more of a cheap trick than an artistic statement. On “Unfrozen Memory,” an unwarranted clavinet staggers around like a manic fairy without stopping once in the entire song. This kind of monotony is prevalent throughout the album and leaves listeners longing for some songs to be over.
Other songs, however, are much more entertaining. “The Great Awakening” is the most genuinely heartfelt track on the record and features more variation than almost all the other tracks combined. The verse follows a cloud of arpeggiated keyboard through wandering, almost psychedelic lyrics from Curt Kirkwood: “Imps of Dionysus/juggle a devil's dreams/chanting an ancient rhyme/trying to cross the stream.”
The poeticism of the Meat Puppets has long been a highlight of their creative process. Even from their earliest work, the Puppets have managed to create semi-confusing one-liner lyrics that strike chords with their jaded fans. But the lackluster delivery on “Dusty Notes” acts as a centrifuge to separate all the passion, leaving just notes and words.
An audience can’t feed on just notes and words alone — listeners have to feel what the artist is feeling. While all the members of the Meat Puppets are fantastic musicians with zero malintent, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes anger is necessary to make the music come alive. With just a little more angst, “Dusty Notes” could have been at least entertaining. If they embraced the modern punk style, their music could have touched a broader audience.