Album I couldn't live without: Trout Mask Replica
The album I can't live without
An initial glance at its cover should give some indication of what Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band's magnum opus is all about: Don Van Vliet poses in a green shearling coat and stove-pipe hat with shuttlecock, waving and holding a fish to his face.
The fish in question is a carp that Van Vliet picked up at a local fishmonger, the titular Trout Mask Replica. This surrealist visage is a visual representation of the chaos that lies inside.
Trout Mask Replica represents the first time that Captain Beefheart was given full creative control on one of his albums, a decision analogous to giving the inmates the run of Broadmoor.
Although their first two offerings (including the fantastic Safe as Milk) gave hints at what the band's musical progression was to become, they tend more towards standard blues.
From the initial cacophonous strains of Frownland, it's clear that Trout Mask Replica is going to be different.
I won't lie to you, on first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds awful. Being born a couple of decades too late I find it hard to imagine what the contemporary reception to this album must have been like, and especially hearing it for the first time without the knowledge of its subsequent critical acclaim.
To quote The Simpsons creator Matt Groening: "I thought it was the worst thing I'd ever heard. I said to myself, they're not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony.
Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn't believe Frank Zappa could do this to me - and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realised they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard."
I always find when listening to albums that it's the singles that initially draw you in, but after a few listens the very musical simplicity that made them catchy makes them boring.
Meanwhile the other, less accessible, songs are the ones that grow on you and have longevity in your rotation.
Trout Mask Replica is an album of no singles, with such initially inaccessible songs that most people won't make it past the first track let alone through the entire album. To be fair, if other artists that I respect hadn't listed it as one of their most influential albums that would probably have been me as well.
Like Groening before me, after a few listens through I finally got it. Like one of his enduring characters, I was finally listening to the notes that they weren't playing.
From the chaotic time signatures of Pachuco Cadaver ("a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?") to the almost melodic blues refrains of Veteran's Day Poppy, this album is one of the most musically diverse I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.
There probably won't ever be as polarising an album released again, you either give it the time it takes for it to click and you love it, or you dismiss it as utter trash. Give it a go. Then give it another three goes.
If you still don't like it, you've not lost anything, but there's the chance that you, like me, may discover something you'll never hear the likes of again. It might not be the most often listened album in my collection these days, but I will always come back to it as one of my absolute favourites.
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