June 11, 2021 Danny Elfman – Big Mess (Album Review)
For many, Danny Elfman’s name is inextricably intertwined with that of another mad genius, Tim Burton; together the pair of revolutionaries have built an incomparable name for themselves in each of their chosen fields. Understandably in-demand, the Grammy and Emmy Award-winning composer hardly sees much downtime, and so it has been more than three decades since he last released a solo collection. It’s not quite the same length as one would have to wait for Halley’s Comet, but for some it no doubt felt even longer.
Thankfully the wait is over and on Friday, June 11, 2021, as Elfman is slated to dish up a Big Mess thanks to Anti-/Epitaph Records. But is this superbly sloppy chaos linked to his free-spirited pursuit of art or, rather, a socio-politically inspired mindfreak borne of the complicated times in which we live?
Having released a series of singles over the past few months, Elfman, who fronted Oingo Boingo throughout the ’80s and into the early ’90s, is ready to toy with all of our senses on his first solo album in 37 years. An ambitious double disc, Big Mess presents 18 opportunities for the acclaimed musician to toy with our minds through his avant-garde use of distorted guitars, industrial synths, and cinematic orchestration. When amalgamated, these often sinister and foreboding textures bring a dystopian landscape to life, one inspired by the past four years of “fascism and civil rot.”
It is, therefore, no surprise that there are moments of socio-political influence found throughout Big Mess, with the most obvious being “Choose Your Side.” Kicking off to a sound bite from the tangerine nightmare, the track allows the multi-talented musician a chance to purge his feelings of disbelief; to reflect on a moment in history that is so far beyond what any imagination could have fathomed. The inability to overcome the mistakes of our past weighs heavily throughout the frustrated rocker, one that provides a clear glimpse into the inner-workings of Elfman’s mind.
But much of Big Mess is far from obvious. Instead, the bulk of the album floats through amorphous, often bizarre territory that presents primates, pandemics, and plenty of Punk Rock. First, however, Elfman begins with an apology on rocker “Sorry.” Serving as an excellent introduction to what will be a guitar heavy record, the track combines Lo-Fi Garage feels with a choir of heavenly voices—the first of many peculiar juxtapositions that work brilliantly.
Drawing on the talents of Guitarists Robin Finck (Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses) and Nili Brosh (Tony MacAlpine, Paul Gilbert), Bassist Stu Brooks (Lady Gaga, Lauryn Hill), and Drummer Josh Freese (Devo, The Vandals), what follows runs the gamut of sounds and emotions. Some moments call Trent Reznor to mind (the disparate hopelessness of “True”), while others offer up great balls of sardonic wit (“Happy”) and take us on seven-minute long psychedelic mind trips (“Everybody Loves You”). But no two tracks are ever alike, so there are also those instances that allow Freese’s percussion to take center-stage (“Love in the Time of COVID”), Punk rockers (“Just A Human”), Classic Rock stomp (“Devil Take Away”), wacky wa-wa (“Get Over It”), and what feels like a vocal nod to the late, great Tom Petty on “Serious Ground.”
Some of the collection’s highlights, however, come in the form of Elfman’s phenomenal orchestration abilities—as when an emotive cello maneuvers us through the daydream-scape of “In Time.” Similarly, there’s a haunting, cinematic beauty to the viola weeping throughout “We Belong,” a fragile yet murderously emotional ballad that reflects on seeing beyond our eyes. And while many of his songs are quick to sucker punch listeners in the throat, his true genius lies in the more nuanced compositions that blend diametrically opposed textures to create rockers such as “Native Intelligence,” and the previously mentioned ode to fickle socially-distanced lust that is “Love in the Time of COVID.”
While none of the tracks are identical twins, there are elements drawn from each to segue flawlessly into the next. Case in point, the sinister prance of “Cruel Compensation” sets us up for “Kick Me,” while the rich bass of “Native Intelligence” gifts us the keys to the palace of “Better Times.” In this, Elfman is able to destroy all boundaries while still offering his listener a cohesive experience that never feels too disjointed or jarring in its wild journey. (And for this the monkeys say “Skol”!)
Although, to be honest, not much can prepare you for the grand finale, a reworking of Oingo Boingo’s “Insects.” Lust and dance break into your pants for the sexual denouement which hopes to tickle an itch you didn’t know you had—or does it? Perhaps “Insects” hides its real meaning in plain sight, much like Big Mess on a miniscule, four-legged scale: sonic mastery that undulates across the mind in the name of personal catharsis and world-weary debate. It is an album that is guaranteed to take each listener on their own individual journey across genre and reality, purging the past few years through the practice of artful insanity.
There’s really no debating if Elfman is a genius composer: we all know that he is. Drawing on eclectic sounds that call to mind other musical masterminds—Trent Reznor, Mike Patton, David Byrne, and Nick Cave to name but a few—he creates a dystopian mélange. From Post-Punk to Lo-Fi to Rock to Punk, the resultant product is a toxic beauty that is reflective of its creator: a self-proclaimed Big Mess. Sure, the album can feel like a water-boarding of the senses, as each track is an intentional circuit overload, but it’s hard to fault something for being exactly what it purports itself to be: a cacophonous concoction. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Danny Elfman’s Big Mess 4 of 5 stars.