- by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2019-07-12 Label: Cherry Red Records
Well before David Thomas’ best Sterling Holloway yawp demands you to “get up, shut up, take it like a man” the hammering synths, Rat-L-Trap drums, whirs and flutters of the opening ‘What I Heard On The Pop Radio’ announce another Pere Ubu album almost forty-five years down the line. Thomas’ command to take it standing up and later request of “can I get a witness” lets you know that The Long Goodbye is not just a collection of disparate songs, but an album in which he and his current band try to tie up the loose ends of nearly half a century of iconoclastic Ubuism. Though maybe not plotted out fully in advance like the Marvel universe, there’s no doubt that the buses and ice cream trucks of Thomas’ world all had a final destination that they needed to get to regardless if they knew it at the time or not.
Whether departing from Cleveland or the Pennsylvania turnpike the roads converge simply in Los Angeles (referred to intermittently as Raymond Chandler’s Bay City - imagined places are more real than their counterparts you know). On the nearly dozen minute second-side coupling of ‘Fortunate Son’ and ‘The Road Ahead’ Thomas lays it all out for us. The former recounts a real story in an imagined place - a Waffle House on the banks of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. For Thomas, the awkward was always more interesting than the well oiled, so his attempt to anonymously pick up the tab for a man and his granddaughter of course goes awry in a funny way. Never one to simply concede, Thomas takes a dodge when asked to profess a shared love of Eric Clapton who is playing on the jukebox - only allowing that ‘Layla’ is a pretty good song.
But as the song leaks into ‘The Road Ahead’ things get fictional and therefore more real. Over a background of flickering radio frequencies and ominous pulses that evoke live wires swinging inches above the water of Thomas’ flooded laboratory, he starts to paint a picture. Back to the ‘Heart of Darkness’, but Joseph Conrad’s this time. “A starting point faded and lost” and a road scattered with the worthless detritus of discarded machinery, rusted out steam engines, and twisted rail lines that Conrad’s natives had no use for. The song gives way to the metaphor of Thomas’ life’s journey as he recounts a vehicle “muffler dragging, engine clanking, doors hanging off” completing its manifest destiny in a last desperate push to the Pacific. Regretting the stops missed along the way the song fades to only a ticking clock counting off the seconds.
The truth of it is that Thomas never missed any stops along the way. Whatever detours he took were always infinitely more interesting than the relatively straight path of I-50 West. Over a life as dedicated as his (Thomas managed to evade a serious illness around the same time The Fall’s Mark E. Smith succumbed) maybe there does need to be wrapping up or an accounting. Thomas laments on ‘The World (As We Know It)‘ that “the more I know the less I see” and maybe that’s just from having seen a lot in his 2/3 of a century. Tom Waits declared the same - “I’ve seen it all through the yellow windows of the evening train”. But ultimately Thomas gets his reward of something that was maybe always there but not seen until he arrived at The Long Goodbye’s endpoint.
As much as The Long Goodbye concludes on, it ends on a sunnier open-ended disposition in ‘Lovely Day’. The song is counter to what truly sounded like a swan song on the prior album’s closer ‘Cold Sweat’. Over Thomas’ mournful melodeon and Robert Wheeler’s playful modulating dentist drill synth, seagulls crash into wind turbines but not all is lost. Thomas assures that the lonely and angry are out there, but also that he can’t see them on such a beautiful day by the sea. Though clocks tick and click forward throughout the album, Thomas continues to be so full of ideas and energy that it hardly seems possible that Bay City is truly the end of his recorded road. The Long Goodbye feels more of a capstone to an arch built block by block over the years, but an arch to support what might come next. Thomas is a North American treasure on par with Waits and Leonard Cohen, but just not a jewel that as many managed to find out there in the real world in real-time. The good news is though it’s now all been mapped out for you if you know where to look.
Note: The CD release version of The Long Goodbye includes a second live disc of the entire album along with several other earlier songs and a Neil Young cover for good measure.