Maintaining anonymity and remaining an enigma aren’t necessarily the same thing. When Black Moth Super Rainbow first arrived it was cloaked in vague, nebulous signifiers—masks, goofy pseudonyms, heavily processed vocals, a reluctance to do interviews—that have now become go-to marketing hooks for bands, or brands, looking to establish a sense of mystery or distance in a world that prizes accessibility over everything. But in the years since the band’s first hazy, vocoder-heavy beginnings, the group, particularly its primary songwriter/figure-head Tobacco (Thomas Fec), has become glaringly accessible, going so far as to fund its latest album through an Eric Wareheim-assisted Kickstarter fund, including a $10,000 prize that lets fans fly out to Pittsburgh, PA, for a BMSR-hosted roller-skating party. I don’t think Godspeed You! Black Emperor will be offering anything similar soon.
The album that resulted from that Kickstarter campaign, Cobra Juicy, is a continuation of that accessibility, a hesitant broadening of the zonked-out, bong-pop aesthetic that they established in the early ’00s, refined on their 2007 breakthrough, Dandelion Gum, and expanded on with 2009’s Dave Fridmann produced Eating Us. Without giving up its commitment to obfuscation or its sense of mystery, the band has crafted a fun, playful and eclectic collection of songs that reveal a more focused, melody-driven approach to writing and a surprising level of thematic coherence. They may still be wearing masks, but the masks have taken on more human qualities.
Like staring at the back of your hand for an hour or falling asleep while watching cartoons in the middle of the day, listening to Black Moth Super Rainbow is often an exercise in concentrated listlessness. Even as the band has gotten better at constructing hooks and discernible choruses, finally earning the “pop” in the psych-pop genre tag, it still remains a master of odd moments and peculiar digressions. The delicate, sliding guitar part toward the beginning of “Psychic Love Damage” quickly gives way to a sputtering beat, a whirling synth and breathy vocals that almost resemble the cheery, evanescence of Play-era Moby, but just before it threatens to become cloying or sentimental, the band cuts it with a bit of fear and terror. “The thought that we’ll both be gone some day tears me to pieces,” sings Tobacco, giving the song’s lovely lilt a touch of melancholy and doom.
This tension between the group’s more direct emotional impulses and its inherent paranoia reappears throughout the album, perhaps most so on the swagger-filled, blues-rock meets trip-hop single “Windshield Smasher” and the acid-tinged, Daft Punk dance-floor assault of “Gangs In The Garden.” Both of these songs rely on beats with the immediacy of rap songs and tense, squishing synth parts, but lyrically they’re some of the most indecipherable songs on the record.
Other tracks on the album find the group exploring different genres but never in a way that takes them too far out of their hazy, starry-eyed comfort zone. Even at its most experimental (the lava lamp minimalism of “Blurring My Day”) or their most poppy (the glam-rock crunch of “Hairspray Heart”), the group remains true to its loose, irreverent sensibility. Sometimes that slackness gets the best of the band—the plodding country of the Beck-ish “We Burn” feels particularly undercooked—but for the most part it serves the goal of simultaneously expressing wonder at the universe’s beauty and befuddlement at its cruelties.
The album comes to a strong close with the morose, star-child-gazing-into-abyss anthem “Spraypaint,” which sounds like a Flaming Lips song sung from inside a deflated bubble ball. “Fucked up when I’m living without you,” repeats Tobacco. Cobra Juicy is by no means a complete maturation or a dramatic reckoning for the group—there’s still a song on here called “Dreamsicle Bomb” and almost every track features a snippet that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Adult Swim ad—but Tobacco’s increased vulnerability gives the band’s constantly evolving mythology a new, compelling dimension. “I couldn’t need you more,” Tobacco sings toward the record’s close. The feeling is mutual.