Man Without a Head is a personal manifesto of sorts: lyrically and musically. The lyrics are an attempt to codify some basic, fundamental truths that I believe about the world. Musically, it is an attempt to knock down my own creative and artistic barriers. I’m not even really sure if Man Without a Head is the name of a band, or strictly the name of a unique recording project. I suppose my next project will force me to resolve that issue.
Man Without a Head is a complex record. It sounds complex, and it deals with complex ideas (for me, anyways). I think it challenges you to listen actively, and is probably less enjoyable if it is consumed passively. It is intended to convey explicit social, political, and philosophical messages; so an active listen is more rewarding in that regard. The basic theme is an acknowledgment of the mystery of existence, while simultaneously critiquing the reality of stark, unjustifiable economic inequalities.
The record takes Albert Camus’ concept of existence as an absurdity as its philosophical starting point—e.g., the human mind’s tendency to attribute meaning to a universe that is not inherently reducible to human meaning is an absurdity. Camus’ observation that “existence is the desperate encounter between human curiosity and the silence of the universe” is transformed in the chorus of the album’s opening track (The Spectacle) to: “everybody living as if they don’t know of the desperate encounters between human curiosity and pretty much everything.” Camus argues that we should nonetheless embrace the absurd, and create meaning through a lifelong process of self-actualization and personal discovery. Humanity—aware of itself in a vast inexplicable universe—is nonetheless left to define itself within the mystery of being. That’s about the closest thing to a religious belief that I have.
This basic view of existence is given a radical political orientation by drawing on perspectives from the anarchist and libertarian-socialist traditions. Specifically—given the existential imperative for self-actualization—any socio-cultural institution that unnecessarily hinders the process is illegitimate. The track “PSA” is a pronouncement of this fundamental political position, and is expressed through the looped sample of a speech by its central proponent, Noam Chomsky:
“Any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself; none of them are self-justifying. They have a burden of proof to bear, and if they cannot bear that burden—which they usually can’t— they’re illegitimate and should be dismantled and replaced.”
Fun Fact: I e-mailed professor Chomsky for permission to use his voice, and he responded within minutes, which was cool. He was cool with using the clip. What a cool guy.
These are the two basic frames of reference that the individual songs are contextualized within: existentialist philosophy and radical anti-capitalism/anti-authoritarianism. Thus, “Man Without a Head” has a couple of meanings. On the one hand it is a metaphor for the individual that must toil in lieu of self-actualization. On the other hand, it is a metaphor for a human society that robs its citizens of the ability to self-actualize in the name of unnecessary power structures. The project title is gendered because the record is in part a personal expression. At the same time, it is also gendered because the oppressive institutions of human society are (and have historically been) largely male dominated.
Specific philosophical ideas and books inspired many of the lyrics on this record. Summaries of the individual song meanings are as follows:
The Spectacle: This song draws on Camus’ notion of the absurd, and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Camus’ observation about the absurdity of existence is juxtaposed with a society that fails to grasp this truth. Instead, society is a fantastic spectacle of commodity culture thinly veiling a ruthless capitalism. The song ends with an appeal to cosmology: that we are circling in many different directions through space at one time. This is simultaneously an image of the awe-inspiring vastness of the universe, as well as a metaphor for the disorienting aspects of the human experience.
Jazz Cigarettes and Dionysian Mysteries: This song draws on imagery from the early Christian cults of Dionysus, and combines that imagery with the imagery of a really fun house party. Dionysian cults sometimes interpreted religion as a radical critique of inequality, and were often political outsiders because of those beliefs. They constructed an elaborate mythos based on the cycle of the seasons, and viewed alcohol (wine) as a means of channeling the divine. They would get drunk at massive social celebrations and often end up rioting in the streets in political opposition to the rich and powerful. I have read that this tradition (consumption of alcohol as a means to channel the divine) is carried over into the modern Christian practice of drinking wine. In any event, this song is about getting fucked up at a house party on a summer night and having a passionate hook-up. The esoteric imagery is intended to reinforce the radical, collective expression of humanity implicit in such activities. Hence the lyrics: “radical acts of passion, are vital forms of action, and desperate attempts to express what we can’t by ourselves”.
Ballyhoo: “Ballyhoo” is a talk or writing intended to get somebody’s attention. In the days of the Circus it referred to the small performance that would occur outside of the tent prior to the start of the main event. It was intended to attract spectators to purchase tickets and come inside. It is the show before the show, so to speak. This song is the “ballyhoo” for the circus in the song that follows it, “Cosmic Horror Show.”
Cosmic Horror Show: This song is about how reality is far more terrifying (and more real) than all of the demons, hells, gods, religions, and other metaphysical entities that populate the landscape of irrational human belief. It explicitly draws on the concept of “cosmic horror” present in the works of author H.P. Lovecraft.
Blood Sugar: This song is pure imagination. It is about monsters that eat people. The lyrics were written as an exercise in combining aesthetics: confections (candy/sweets/cakes) and gore. It is an exercise in wordplay with disjointed concepts. At the same time, the music was written to be a grey, monotone backdrop to such vivid imagery. Also, Brendan refused to pronounce the word “confit” in its proper French pronunciation (with a soft-t). He looked at me and said “I’m not doing that.” So he says Khan-Fit.
Better Half: This is the most important song (for me personally) on the record. It is about my girlfriend Jennifer Cronin, and how she inspires me to be both a better person, and the best possible artist I can be (she’s literally the best painter in the world). This song is less cerebral than the other songs. The lyrics are about how hard it is to write a love song because everything you try to say about love sounds super unoriginal. The lyrics attempt to find humor in the following observation: whether someone makes you a better person, or merely keeps you from being a huge sack of garbage, are two sides of the same coin.
Propaganda by the Deed: This song is about a politically motivated bombing. The lyrics draw heavily on the concept of “attentat,” (or “propaganda by the deed”) as it was understood by Anarchists like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Mikhail Bakunin. This term refers to the use of political violence as an act of social propaganda to incite rebellion and catalyze the unity of dispossessed classes against their capitalist oppressors. The thought was, if you kill the evil captain of industry, then the people will spill into the streets and draw lines in the sand. This concept has a storied history in the anarchist tradition: where one can find arguments that both support and oppose the idea (often by the same author after a change of heart due to historical circumstances). The song describes a bombing in celebratory terms, and then deals with the troubling moral implications posed by using violence as a means to escape structural oppression. This issue is stated succinctly in the lyrical passage referring to the bombers: “this all sounds a little too familiar, the guns and the bombs, and the righteous mobs. The demagogue zealots claim that they’re saving the whole damn world, even as they burn it to the ground.” It should be noted that this song is not intended to equate terrorism with anarchy. See here for clarification.
PSA: This song contains the basic political premise of the record: that all institutions which are coercive to the process of individual self-actualization are subject to a burden of proving the necessity for their existence; and that most cannot meet said burden and are therefore illegitimate.
The Revolution Didn’t Come: This song is frustration with the pace of progressive social change. It is expressed as anthem.
The Unitaur: This song is about the rising of the mythical Unitaur that—despite the decidedly secular bent of the remainder of the record—is a very real thing that will return to usher in the end times for us all. It is also an experimental blend of improvised comedy, music, and sound collage. This is an area I am interested in exploring further in the future.
Behind the Curtain: As the album closer, this song reiterates themes from the opening track. The song is about how existence is a complete and utter mystery, despite our best efforts to understand it. The fact that humans may never be able to understand it sometimes feels like we’re the punch line in one big cosmic joke.
The full lyrics and production credits are available on the album page at Sooperrecords.com.
Thanks for reading,