Chicagoan Bobby Conn’s new experimental record “King for a Day” is almost as outlandish as his persona. The young glam-rocker — known for his makeup, his audience participation and his video monologues about satanic forces — has largely maintained the socially critical bent of his earlier albums. Long compositions, arranged with as many as 12 parts, are reminiscent of Miles Davis’s similarly experimental “Bitches Brew,” and Conn’s arrangements test listeners with their complexity, often demanding undivided attention to fully appreciate the music. But if you’re willing to dive in, be prepared for a challenging ride. “King for a Day” is not comfort music.
The opening song “Vanitas,” as Conn himself says, is the test track — if you can get past this, you’ll probably get through the rest. The first sound you hear is a baby’s whimper, which smoothly and almost imperceptibly transitions into a woman’s moan, which is then replaced by a loud gong and a jazzy guitar vamp. But Conn’s experiments never stop in this first track: a Latin chorus begins to repeat a phrase from Ecclesiastes meaning, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The phrase encapsulates Conn’s pessimistic view of his celebrity on this record.
Many of the tracks that follow, however, alleviate this plunge into the deep end. “When the Money’s Gone” is no less pessimistic, but the return to normal rock beats definitely makes for an easier listen. The synthesized instrumental “A Glimpse of Paradise,” too, is simple compared to the opening track.
Conn admits that the title track gets its inspiration from a toe-sucking incident at one of his concert after-parties. That track continues Conn’s thinly-veiled desire for a normal life: He sings about being surrounded by sweat and sewage, and about shoplifting magazines, and then returning to work on Monday. The light and upbeat chorus proclaims, “King for a day, temporarily saved,” in support of the yin and yang of work and play.
“Lover Let Me Down,” a decidedly more optimistic song, pays homage to the lackadaisical feel of the Beatles in such songs as “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” The bouncily-sung, onomatopoetic lines save the album from becoming too jaded, and the electronic instrumental “Sinking Ship” cleanses the palate for — without a doubt — the most memorable track on the record.
“Punch the Sky” alone is worth the price of “King.” The faux-dialogue between two recorded tracks of Conn’s voice calls for the abandonment of traditional religion and the need to embrace a more assertive, “Carpe diem!” attitude toward life. A short excerpt from Conn’s masterwork dialogue: “I have a high performance lifestyle, ok? I use all eight cylinders. All eight. All the time, and I want you to come with me … I want you to punch the sky.” This insight is accompanied by an explication of the reasons some people are 70 million years old and of the reasons why the afterlife is like having to ask dad to borrow his car.
The rest of the album ends with relatively little avant-garde material: back to regular ole rock ‘n roll, like in the hard-driving “Anybody,” which continues Conn’s commitment to “Carpe diem!”
On his sixth album, Conn still has comments to make — even after his politically-charged “Homeland” — and he’s expanding his art: For every track on “King,” Conn and his bandmates are making a video to complement the song. The entire effort (including a staged version of the toe-sucking incident) will be posted on YouTube and is expected to be over an hour long. At first the nonconformity of “King for a Day” will be appealing, but the mediocre record will at best be survived by its sole highlight “Punch the Sky.”