Trout Mask Replica is not an album, it’s conceptual art – like most conceptual art it fucking stinks. Because it exists to mock those who don’t get/don’t like it. Oh, I meant to start by saying I love the shit out of Captain Beefheart. The good Captain’s music gets better with time. Every time I have a poke around on the box-set or on any of the albums – besides this one – I find something new to revel in. A few years back I interviewed the great photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn. I was talking to him, primarily, about his Joy Division film, Control. But he told me he loved our chat because at the end of four days of press and something like 200 interviews (he claimed) I was the only one who asked him a question about Beefheart. Corbijn had made a short-film/short-doco/conceptual piece about the Captain. And he never expected a question or two about it. So, yeah, I share that now to let you know I’m a fan.
But you read about Trout Mask Replica and it’s always so off-putting, that very worst thing about music criticism, a circle-jerk of basement-dwellers telling you they’re better than you because they understand something you don’t.
It’s so hard to believe too – you get the feeling that over 50% of the people who gush about Trout Mask Replica have never heard it the whole way through; at least not more than once.
Flagellation is never far from music criticism but the reappraisals of Trout Mask Replica are absurd. So, too, I might add, are the ones totally dismissing it. Proclaiming it unlistenable and stupid. And that’s why I can never listen to this album again. It’s a wasteland. In fact I’d rather read The Wasteland – and that’s a giant load of shit too.
Like T.S. Elliott, Captain Beefheart, or Don, if you’d prefer, is constantly held up to measure against some oddity and absurdity that doesn’t really define the finest work he offered.
You want a crash course in Beefheart go for any other album he released. Seriously any. Okay, not Unconditionally Guaranteed. But Safe as Milk (the debut) deserves a lot more attention than Trout Mask. So does Strictly Personal and Lick My Decals Off, Baby and The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot and – even – down at the other end, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow. They’re all more rewarding. They’re all better examples of the mad genius, of an artist pushing limits and ideas and pushing ideas to their limits. Trout Mask Replica is just too messy, too huge, too oddly revered – for reasons that are never quite clear. Hearing about how great and how “out there, man” Trout Mask Replica is, well, it’s a bit like hearing that movies like The Brown Bunny and Klown are deep and thoughtful and interesting and profound and wise and challenging. The only adjective that stands up is challenging. And not in the way it’s intended.
Oh, I like some of Trout Mask Replica. I like some of it a lot. And there are lovely reminders of just how pervasively subversive and/or subversively pervasive it has – somehow – gone on to be. David Byrne opening a concert with an a capella reading of Well, for example. You don’t expect that. And then you go back to the original – the Captain in full field-holler flight. And you marvel at what he was doing and at how Byrne was able to just toss it out there as both a doff of the cap and a far more palatable (for the mainstream audience) serving.
But Trout Mask Replica is, pardon the pun, fishy. Something’s just not quite believable about it. It’s like believing Gretchen Albrecht to be an abstract artist. Nothing abstract about her wax-on/wax-off half-circle wipes. They’re clinical and calculated.
Beefheart’s work is staggering. Trout Mask Replica has been elevated almost as a sort of gatekeeper, some smug way of keeping out the thickies. I should like that. But I don’t. And I don’t ever want to hear the album again. Not when there’s both goodness and weirdness and so much to marvel at on almost everything else bearing his name.