The 2022 album from Momus is Smudger: an album in which meaning is smudged, influences are smudged, feeling and context are smudged, even timelines are smudged, making it very much an album for our times. The title also obliquely matches Bowie's Lodger, and there are some matches and analogies to be drawn therein. The songs draw from various periods in Momus' career, making this a more varied sonic experience than his recent albums have been.
I should add that one of the many conversations which influenced the videos and songs which resulted was with Bob Dickinson, my GCSE music teacher from long ago, who was a founder member of Magazine and co-wrote Motorcade, a song which Momus has covered. (I got a C grade if you are wondering. My complete inability to play a musical instrument convincingly did not help.)
Opening song January is an electro pop take on Schubert's Gute Nacht from Winterreise, which could be from Momus' own late 80s output. The following Stop the Body could be from even earlier, a similar vibe and clear borrowings from his classic Closer to You, a song in defiance of puritanism and "biometric police". One theme of this album is the attempt by corporations, governments and the media to control our bodies, our physicality and sexuality. Disappear is a slower and melancholy ballad about impermanence, ironically asking "what it's like to be a prodigy unknown", whilst all about him people say "surprise and happy birthday" then disappear, ultimately to the "zero where everybody goes", which is death. Similarly the closing track, a setting of Brecht's Of the Friendliness of the World is a paean to our expulsion from the world we love as "they chuck some clods of earth" upon us.
Government interference seems to be referenced here as well, in Disappear "People who are theoretically free, They turn away the tennis star, They welcome the unkind" confronts the Djokovic / Covid fiasco. While Momus is never a conspiracy theorist, to be clear, his concern over the extent to which random governmental diktats can remove our freedoms is quite comprehensible, given his own lack of freedom. Without a booster jab he could not currently go for a coffee in Berlin, for instance. Orchestras, might also be about that unwelcome puritanism, and the encroaching censorship of cancellation. He sings of a hero, probably Bowie, "Where are you now my problematic fave?, Oozing or just snoozing, snoozing in your grave, In the age of information you escaped the great palaver", bemoans the "lurch creep of the puritan", "autistic incel bedroom boys", and the "rush for inequality". The pumping, driving woodwind and brass which characterises the songs brings to mind the process music referenced on 2020's album Vivid and - to some extent - on last year's Athenian, but here is merged with sounds from other times and timelines.
The almost-compulsory-on-a-Momus-album "Bond-like" appears in Supervillain, as the villain responsible for Brexit, "a shaggable joke", is mocked along with England, dismissed as a "banal non-republic", a judgement it is hard to counter. The pastiche employed here in the composition is excellent. Another Momus standard, the music hall song, is employed in the Harry Champion-esque Midnight Sun, inspired by a dream of his late Father. Similarly the Coffee Professor takes a burlesque turn at the story of the invention of capitalism, apparently in Coffee houses, sung by a coffee expert who finds himself addicted, possibly afflicted, and afraid that coffee might also be how the modern world falls. Friends is a story from personal events of a friend who betrayed and stole from their more narcotic addiction, also told to a comedic stomp.
Influencer Village is the descendant of D.J. from Lodger, as a modern gatekeeper describes the world of social media, mocking it in a jerky post-punk rant punctuated by moments of clarity and peace, referencing the Kinks by accident or design. Totentanz takes its sound from the Folktronic era of Momus, as we "dance the end of lust", because "we became the puritans we used to spit upon", where the freedoms of the 60s seem to have been lost in the new puritanism of cancellation and censure where context is irrelevant. The puritans are parasites, in the song Pesky Blighters they are "cartwheeling towards my pantry door". This song also carries an echo of the style of Vivid, with the process music influence. Bergreise is an electronic love song to both Germany and synthesizers, the names of Oberheim and Odyssey dropped in. This is followed by Peter Grimes, a setting for the story originally told in a George Crabbe poem and interpreted as an opera by Benjamin Britten. This could be an early song by Momus, the complex narrative and half spoken narrator being common features of his work. Night Clinic is a beautiful sweet song about love, confusion and loss, early hours alienation and crisis of confidence reflected in the lyric "Down's been down so so long it smells like love".
Smudger is as wonderfully enigmatic as anything Momus has produced, smudging the influences of music hall, abstruse literature and philosophy, Dudley Moore, sexual politics and socio-political agendas with the memory and loss of David Bowie and the memory of many wonderful artists. His strongest lyrics on this album, in my opinion, come when he allows some expressionism and abstract imagery to filter through, rather than the more precise mockery of, for instance, Influencer Village. The variety of musical genres presented is enviable, as he can switch code from electro pop to classical pastiche or soulfulness with equal technical prowess. As ever, one of the most under-rated and unjustly unknown songwriters operating.