Imagine Hank Levy vomiting expensive red wine into a Devo energy dome. It’s a weird image – messy, chaotic, pretty awful and a frankly unexpected crossover of genres, but there’s likely a part of you that wants to know more. This is the best way to describe ‘Modern Cruelty’, the debut album of one-man act Vivienne Monday. It’s definitely not good, but it’s certainly interesting.
Vivienne Monday, a.k.a Karl Clews, started his “musical odyssey” (as his personal website puts it) at age eight, boasting some impressive qualifications in classical guitar. Though technical skill is always a delightful bonus, there’s little to show from all of these years of training on the album. The songs are variations on rudimentary themes with bass lines seemingly plucked from the poorer parts of the Seinfeld soundtrack and melodies which sound like the tunes programmed into cheap electric keyboards.
The album’s first track, Rely On Me, was released in advance as a single. Wise choice, given that it’s probably the best track on the album. There’s something oddly endearing about the tinny and distant vocals and the image seen in both the song’s video and the album cover of Clews decked out in an ill-fitting suit, sporting a foppish mop of curly hair and seriously channeling Duckie from the seminal John Hughes classic Pretty in Pink. It has all the trappings of an objectively bad song and yet inexplicably inspires fascination and an odd cognitive dissonance of knowing you shouldn’t be enjoying yourself but are pressing play regardless.
Lyrically, Clews seems to be taking his inspiration from Gary Lightbody’s reject pile. Listening to every song in quick succession feels like being hit over the head with a baseball bat made of love song clichés and hammy funk. Highlights include: “My hands are shaking/ My body’s numb/That fever hit me/Like a perfect storm.” (Something We Said); “Moonlight/ In your blue eyes” (Moonlight); “Our collective psyches have been rearranged” (Manhattan) and “This ain’t no passing fascination/ This ain’t no temporary stay/This ain’t no overnight sensation/and I’m prepared to wait.” (Until the Morning Light).
These lines are all delivered with the breathy and nasally drawl which only serves to make the songs even more cringe-worthy and ridiculous than they already were. Were this album in fact a subtle anti-comedy spoof of Barry White, it would be utterly impressive, but that’s blatantly not the case. The crux of the issue is that Clews is merely reiterating tired tropes in lieu of bringing his own nuanced perspective to the genre – it makes him sound like a mere imitator, as opposed to someone hoping to build upon what is already out there and contribute something fresh and interesting.
(Dis)honorable mentions must also be given to the tracks Kitty Hawk and Tears of St. Anthony, both notable for different but equally bad reasons. The former, Kitty Hawk, stands out because it is sung with a distorted, strained growl which makes it sound like angry, drunk karaoke performed by someone in the midst of a divorce settlement. It’s deeply unpleasant, yet compelling in the same way that the abject horror of a car crash is impossible to look away from. The latter, Tears of St Anthony, has to be discussed due to the fact that it tells tale of the singers encounter with – and yes, this is true – a drunk angel. Clews sings “He spoke in riddles/and his voice was like the ocean.” The anti-comedy theory is increasingly becoming more plausible.
‘Modern Cruelty’ is not worth recommending. However, the sheer weirdness of both the album and its artist inspire a morbid curiosity which – possibly – some of you may feel the need to sate.
‘Modern Cruelty’ is available on Bandcamp.