Get out of your mind with Thee Oh Sees' 'Putrifiers II'
As are most great albums, Thee Oh Sees’ newest release, Putrifiers II, is about mental instability.
It’s a theme so well-worn by rock and roll, particularly the kind of oft-terrifying, psychedelic rock of the ‘60s from which the album takes its cues. It’s tempting to dismiss the kind of psychosis and darkness explored in these songs as hammy or unnecessarily derivative of admittedly superior music by people like The Velvet Underground or Syd Barrett.
However, even if you were to cite all of the clear musical references Thee Oh Sees make on this record (and there are a lot of them), at a certain point you still couldn’t argue with the sheer songwriting craft that makes songs like “Hang a Picture” or “Will We Be Scared?” so great.
“Wax Face,” the record’s first track, begins with the nearly out-of-tune baroque noodling of two electric guitars, calling to mind the simplistic beauty of the beginning to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, and then totally obliterating all of it with a heavy wave of distorted guitars and bass.
The song rides along on a disorienting and heavy drum performance that wavers constantly between the anarchy of the first records of The Stooges and the sound of the devil knocking on your door. Between its guitar tones and screeching falsetto vocals alone, “Wax Face” conjures up feelings of dread that carry all through the record, a feeling that Thee Oh Sees songwriter John Dwyer never quite lets you forget the danger lurking just outside your window.
Compare that with the similarly distorted but drastically more lighthearted “Hang a Picture,” whose refrain of “Hang a picture on the wall / It’s a reflection of us all” acts almost as a kind of wishful thinking against the psychological disaster “Wax Face” introduces. “Hang a Picture,” and its sister song, the viola-adorned “So Nice,” introduces the album’s other key theme of shielding oneself against the damaging nature of the world by denying and blocking it out. As Dwyer puts it in “Picture”: “Sing a sweet melody / It’s just the world that you can see.”
A turning point comes in the album with the key track “Cloud #1,” a two-minute recording of organ and keyboard feedback that is nothing short of sublime. “Cloud #1,” as well as its unofficial sequel on the album entitled “Putrifiers II,” travels from a blissful one-note raga to a dissonant minor chord that squeals and shrieks until it somehow resolves back into its major chord, having become a shrill shell of its former harmonious self.
This gives good indication as to the trajectory of the album, with brooding but overall pleasant tracks like “Flood’s New Light” and “Will We Be Scared?” balancing delicately above the abyss before plunging back into the existential fear and loathing found in something like the introduction to “Lupine Dominus.”
Of course the album’s songwriting is strong, even when it’s not tackling such heavy subject matter. The Byrds-esque “Goodnight Baby” is a clear highlight just due to its masterful 12-string guitar work. However, Putrifiers II is at its best when it’s doing some heavy lifting, and as an album that explores the psychedelic and distorted darkness of the human mind, this one ranks up there with the greats.