The Anti-Confessional Autobiography: The Residents’ Not Available and Uboa’s The Origin of My Depression
The avant-garde group The Residents have spent much of their careers committed to anonymity. The band is best known for their iconic set of masks shaped like giant eyeballs, which they use in promotional photos and live performances to conceal their identities. The mystery of who the members are has become part of the band’s allure (the only known member is Hardy Fox, who revealed himself as the band’s primary composer in 2017), and the band has entertained this by constructing a mythology around their music in liner notes, performances, and interviews. Most information about The Residents is disseminated by the band themselves, and the truth of that information is left intentionally ambiguous.
A lot of writing about The Residents focuses on the question of the band members’ identities, and that doesn’t really interest me. What I want to do is explore the relationship between the band’s mythology and the music, and how the context given to the music informs my experience with it.
On their 1978 release Not Available, this mythologizing greatly impacts the listening experience. The information on the album positions it as one so personal that it originally wasn’t meant to be released, yet the album is so inscrutable that it doesn’t reveal much of anything about The Residents’ personal lives. The result is an album that opens up questions about autobiographical expression in music, and whether we need specific context for it to resonate.
The alleged backstory was presented in the album’s liner notes and elaborated upon in subsequent re-releases. The band insists that the album was initially recorded in 1974 and guided by their “theory of obscurity.” The “theory of obscurity” is the idea that an artist makes their best work without any expectations of the outside world. According to the liner notes, the idea behind Not Available was to put this theory into practice by making an album that would never be released.
Practicing this theory wasn’t the band’s only purported reason to make the album in such private conditions. Not Available began as a form of group therapy between the members, who were all going through personal issues and conflicts with each other. It’s essentially a musical psychodrama, where each band member plays a different character in a surreal narrative. The band claimed that the album would be too personal to release to the public. Later, when they delayed their planned release for 1978 over a disagreement with their “management group” The Cryptic Corporation (who are most likely The Residents themselves), the Corporation released Not Available without the band’s permission.
I consider the story’s truth to be dubious for several reasons. For one, the quality of the production and composition is much closer to the band’s late 70s work than their 1974 material. The constructed nature of the Cryptic Corporation also suggests that the liner notes shouldn’t be taken at face value. Whether or not the band actually recorded the album for therapeutic reasons, I think it was probable that the band always planned for it to be released. Regardless, knowing the “backstory” has always influenced how I see the album.
The concept of a record label mining whatever they can – to the point that they would release an anonymous band’s therapeutic recordings – can be seen as another example of The Residents’ satire of the music industry. But this angle isn’t what really draws me to Not Available. I’m mainly interested in how the source of the album’s melancholy is so hard to parse.
Even with the idea that the album is deeply personal, the album’s lyrics and sounds are so surreal that it’s like there’s a barrier between you and it. You can feel the emotions, but you can’t completely understand them. Not Available is marketed with the promise that you’ll get access to something you’re not meant to hear – a kind of unmasking of The Residents that you don’t actually get. Essentially, you listen to the album with the assumption that you’re accessing something deeply personal, but you don’t finish it with the takeaway of what that thing is. Despite this confusion, the album is still so emotionally open, and I find more that resonates with me with each listen.
“I had spent the better part of a year sometime in the early 1970s dealing with a bit of depression. My best friend was an old piano that could not be moved into the studio because it was too heavy, so the two of us sat together in the warehouse next to the studio.
Meet the Residents had been a complete bomb, garnering nothing that would suggest there was reason to record more albums. I was dealing with accepting being gay and feared that it would tear me away from friends and family.
So I wrote and recorded somber melodies. In time, those melodies became the basis of the album, Not Available. It remains a somber reminder of those times to me.”
This confirms that Not Available is a deeply personal project, and one which deals with a lot of troubled feelings. Even with this context, it’s still a mystery whether those melodies became integrated into a psychodrama. While Fox’s brief writing on the album explains some of the source of that melancholy, it still doesn’t entirely give away what the album is actually “about.” Maybe we don’t need to know.
When I listen to Not Available, I’m not thinking about ways to uncover the album’s “mystery.” To me, the album captures the experience of intense emotional pain without a clear source. Part of this is in the vocal performances. Keeping with the psychodrama concept, each Resident plays a different character with a distinct voice. One of the impressive achievements of the album is the ability to achieve a sense of deep emotional vulnerability with voices that sound absolutely cartoonish.
I don’t mean “cartoonish” as an insulting term. I refer to them this way because of their exaggeration. For example, the character Porcupine has an intensely high pitched voice that’s easy to find grating on first listen. The vocal performance communicates a sense of pain, fear, and deep sadness, but it doesn’t do so “naturally.” Porcupine’s voice doesn’t sound like an actual person’s voice – it’s an exaggeration of how someone sounds when those feelings come through. It embodies those feelings.
This cartoonishness creates a sense of distance from reality and draws attention to the performative aspect of the project, and it also creates a sense of heightened emotion in its exaggeration. I think this is why people that I’ve shared this album with are baffled on the first listen and emotionally moved on subsequent ones. The exaggeration appears to create a sense of irony and playfulness, but then you’re confronted with this pervasive melancholy in the lyrics and melodies. On subsequent listens it becomes easier to recognise that this cartoonishness is being used as a means of emotional communication, rather than emotional distancing.
While The Residents engage heavily in irony, they can catch you off guard with bursts of sincere emotion amongst the provocation. There’s a similar sensibility from artists like Ween. This quality can be seen as early as Meet The Residents. Not Available is similar to Residents albums like Demons Dance Alone, where they’re not absent of irony or satire but still place emotional expression as their top priority.
One of my favorite examples of a synthesis of vocal performance and lyrics is Porcupine’s repeated line, “The open and the broken have begun to blend again,” on the song “The Making Of The Soul.” This lyric conveys how depressive feelings blend into everyday life to the point that one can’t distinguish between what is “normal” and what is unhealthy. What I like about the Porcupine vocal performance is how it keeps the intensity of those feelings constant until everything breaks down completely. In the second half of the song, the vocal performance becomes more aggressively emotional until it becomes nothing but weeping, paired with a musical cacophony. The piece goes from a relatively clear lyrical communication to a complete breakdown of language.
A similar sensibility appears in the more recent music of Uboa, the musical project of Xandra Metcalfe. Her 2019 album The Origin Of My Depressionreflects her experiences with gender dysphoria, depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation. This may seem an odd comparison because Metcalfe is very direct about the connections between her music and her life. However, her usage of noise creates a similar mix of open and closed expression.
In Metcalfe’s music, noise typically drowns out and displaces language. For example, the title track of The Origin Of My Depression begins with clear spoken word over an ambient soundscape. While Metcalfe’s vocals do not change in register for the song’s first four minutes, the increasingly dissonant sounds overwhelm her vocals until they are buried in the mix. Once her vocals transform into screaming, the words become mostly unintelligible. Language is lost in noise.
This is especially evident on the album’s Genius page, where many of the lyrics aren’t transcribed and are instead listed as [REDACTED]. On the song “Please Don’t Leave Me,” one of Metcalfe’s own annotations for a [REDACTED] section says, “I do not know what I was screaming at the start of the song. Nor do I want to know.” In one sense, this is a way of concealing – we are denied access to the words through its burial in the mix. But in cases like “Please Don’t Leave Me,” there’s also an acknowledgement that such experiences go beyond conventional representation. When an experience is so intense that it can’t be completely understood even by the subject, what chance do we have of accessing it? We can’t have a complete understanding, but we don’t need the clarity of conventional representation to access the emotion. The intense anguish of noise does more than enough for that.
“These are two different things – I don’t want people just to psychoanalyze me. Coincidences, unpacking lyrics, mishearing lyrics, relations between sounds, pacing, gaps… that’s the stuff that interests me when people talk about records in general. A symptomatic reading suddenly opens a whole world of listening and interpreting and can make art even more interesting, beyond the immediate experience of enjoyment.”
This point interests me because it shows that the inaccessible elements of her music aren’t just there to conceal personal experience from the audience. Rather than these elements being anti-audience, they actually open the audience up to find their own meaning in the music. Symptomatic reading is a form of reading that involves discovering the “unconscious” elements of the text, especially in terms of what it’s unable to say or express. This type of reading usually focuses on ideology and the social conditions under which a text was written, but Metcalfe uses it here to refer to a more personal experience.
Essentially, by rendering several aspects of the album unknowable, the listener is encouraged to discover expressions beyond what is directly said, and find things the artist may not have intended. The end goal of this listening isn’t to discover the truth of the artist’s life behind the album, but to find an emotional resonance through the listening experience itself.
The Residents use a similar strategy on Not Available. Their use of the backstory sets up an idea of “discovering the truth,” but there are too many layers of artifice and surrealism to make it actually “solvable.” As a result, whatever one finds in the album can’t be said to be fully intentional. The band wrote the backstory with an awareness that the “truth” of the album can’t be found by listening alone. The backstory influences listeners’ perceptions of the album in that it gives us knowledge that the album is a deeply personal work, but the lack of access to context beyond that returns the album’s power to the listeners.
Part of what draws me to music is how it can express things that are difficult to put into words. These albums push the listener to hear the artist’s experience in a non-literal way by emphasizing what isn’t said and what isn’t known. While directly confessional lyrics have their place in autobiographical music, I find this inaccessible form is more interesting, and one that personally resonates with me more as someone who often struggles to understand and process my own emotions. I spent many years experiencing gender dysphoria without recognizing or accepting it as that, so it appeared to me as this very vague feeling of “wrongness” that I couldn’t understand. It was certainly felt, but not understood.
Even though Not Available isn’t about dysphoria and it’s only a partial element of The Origin Of My Depression, both albums capture that kind of experience in a way that more openly confessional music can’t.It’s a form of autobiographical music that allows the listener to discover themselves alongside the artist.