The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow (Music Review)

The King In Yellow cover

The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow

The Dead Milkmen were the class clowns of 80s punk, and the thought of them releasing a new album today seems both fascinating and unnecessary. The King In Yellow fills both those expectations.

As confident and unpolished as always, the songs are all over the place. Intelligent but absurd jokes sneak into the serious songs, while poignant observations can be found in the sillier ones. The bitter “Meaningless Upbeat Happy Song” is the closest to a “classic” Dead Milkmen song, but the band always featured too much variety to be pigeonholed. Contrast that song with “Fauxhemia”‘s more mature look at the life of an aging punk: They begins with the expected complaints about popular culture, but they don’t seem so proud of it now. (“I just don’t get Norah Jones, and maybe that’s why I feel so alone.”) It’s better to think of this as a collection of outtakes than a consistent album.

Some songs are surprisingly weird, and give the impression that you’re witnessing an inside joke. “Hangman”, for example, is a straight-faced story of condemned criminals staking their lives on a word game. Other songs are painfully literal, such as “Commodify Your Dissent”‘s complaint about corporations appropriating underground music. (Though you’re pretty much required to enjoy any song with the line “Johnny Cash died for you!”) There are also songs that seem to be closer to fragments than fleshed-out ideas: “Or Maybe It Is” ends immediately after bringing up the idea that a “horse race sniper” might not be committing any crimes. When all the elements come together, you get a clever deconstruction of modern life like “Solvents (For Home And Industry)”, and when they don’t, you get the unfulfilled plot ideas of “Quality of Death”. Imagine watching Monty Python for the first time, and you’ll have an idea of how it feels to listen to The King In Yellow.

In addition to everything else, there are enough songs about murder that even I, a big fan of murder ballads, feel a little weird about it. (The detailed fantasy of the stalker in “Some Young Guy” has a lot to do with it.) In fact, the title song is a (punchy, very fun) cover of an Irish folk song about a man killing his wife.

Intelligent and aimless, the modern Dead Milkmen are much the same as ever. Whether that is a good thing or not is a personal decision: Even the catchy songs are grating, and the lyrics are sporadically brilliant. Are you able to approach a Dead Milkmen album the same way you did decades ago, or would that just seem off-putting today? You may have to buy the album to find out.

Grade: B-

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