Graded on a Curve:
Meat Puppets,
Up on the Sun

Spacy lockstep psychedelic folk-punk with a spring in its step: That’s the best I can do to summon up the bouncy and utterly ebullient music on Meat Puppets’ 1985 Meisterwerk Up on the Sun. Up on the Sun constituted the last of a three LP onslaught that marked one of the most astonishing evolutions in musical history—the Puppets went from mealy-mouthed hardcore slash and burn to weirded-up, slowed-down country murk to this acid-drenched, desert-fried classic, which I consider to be one of the most singular landmarks on America’s postpunk landscape.

Arizona son Curt Kirkwood delivers up his patented brand of liquid sunshine mysticism in a deadpan drone, which is to say he’s got nothing to lose and nothing to prove and doesn’t give a damn if he ain’t the second coming of Mel Torme. He tosses off non sequiturs (“A long time ago/I turned to myself/And said, You, you are my daughter”), turns banalities into profundities (“Pistachios turn your fingers red”), and engages in much surrealistic word spew (“Hot pink volcano in the heart of the tornado, is shaking the lemonade tree/Hot pink forest is backed by a furnace, that boils the lemonade free”). But no matter how far out his lyrics are they’re still firmly set in the Arizona desert, with the sun baking the mesa and the local “Swimming Ground” providing the only escape from the hot pink heat for miles. Kirkwood may have been a mystic, but he was a mystic with both feet planted solidly on the earth.

Curt Kirkwood, brother Cris (bass), and Derrick Bostrom (drums) go all syncopated on this one, but somehow manage to keep things loose. You could almost call Up on the Sun funky but it’s not like any funk you’ve ever heard before; the songs are simultaneously groove-locked and ramshackle, and the tension between structure and tossed-off loosey-goosey chaos is what keeps you on the edge of your seat. In a strange way—and I’ve never noticed this until now—Up on the Sun could be a deranged country cousin to the early LPs of the Talking Heads, sans the claustrophobia and rampant paranoia (our boys are on a good trip and couldn’t be happier). Both bands serve up a very deviant form of dance music, if only for spastics, meth heads, and the like.

Unlike 1984’s Meat Puppets II, Up on the Sun never really slows down; a few of the songs are mid-tempo, but even they boast a bounce that keeps things on the jaunty side. The instrumental “Seal Whales” is probably the slowest song on the LP, but it fits right in with the other songs and you hardly even notice. As for the hyper ones, my favorites are the dada-inspired “Buckethead,” which bops and hops along like a Mexican jumping bean and boasts a very odd instrumental interlude along the way; the frantic “Creator,” on which Curt Kirkwood shows you just how far you can go in the rock world without being in any way shape or form a guitar slinger; and “Animal Kingdom,” which boasts a rhythm (and some guitar stutter) that remind me of the Talking Heads very much indeed.

The very refreshing “Swimming Ground” comes at you like a crazy person doing a belly flop; as for “Hot Pink” it’s one of the perkiest songs you’ll ever hear and proceeds according to an inexorable logic known only to the three giddy stoners who created it. “Too Real” evokes a pair of walking scissors as well as the stark vastness of the Arizona desert; “Around here it’s all the same,” sings Kirkwood, “I said it’s all the same.” The title track is dreamy and lovely and boasts some primitive chukka-chukka guitar; as for “Animal Kingdom” it features some great rhythm guitar and the immortal lines, “Up in my head there’s an animal kingdom/I am the king of the animals there.” And “Enchanted Porkfist” segues from a galloping opening that reminds me of nothing more than the Outlaws to a canter over which Kirkwood doesn’t so much sing the words as moan them.

Feed the heads of a trio of hardcore-loving desert kids from America’s Southwest enough liquid LSD and what you get is an LP that Robert Christgau said offers up “the most unabashedly lysergic worldview yet to emerge from postpunk.” I don’t care if Curt Kirkwood described Up on the Sun as the Puppets’ “beer and pot” album; it’s got Timothy Leary’s fingerprints all over it.

Me, I will always love Up on the Sun because it manages the almost impossible feat of fusing lockstep rhythms with the sloppy feel of a hippie jam band—as if there were any other kind of jam band. And Meat Puppets pulled it off because at heart they were hippies, and proud of it; I can only wish I’d been there to see this defiant triumvirate of defiant long hairs gleefully pushing their friendly jams into the faces of hostile hardcore fans while touring with the likes of Black Flag and Nig-Heist.

Up on the Sun is folk music for people who don’t like folk music, punk music for people who don’t much like punk, and funk for people who like to listen to their funk sitting down. It’s an enigmatic, quixotic, and utterly delightful tour de force. This is the sound of a band goofing on the cosmos and having a damned good time doing it. Forget about Phish, Widespread Panic, the Dave Matthews Band, et al. The Up on the Sun-era Meat Puppets were a hippie stealth bomb dropped upon outraged hardcore kids and the real true jam band successors to the Grateful Dead. Just don’t let most of your Meat Puppets fans know that. They’d be appalled.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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