On first listen, the early recordings of Briton Nicholas Currie (aka Momus) suggest some sort of unholy alliance between Donovan and Morrissey. Both literate and literary, Currie is an erudite singer/songwriter of striking originality who merges European music-hall tradition with more conventional new-agey folk and synth disco; call it “fop” music. Like Woody Allen, Currie is obsessed with sex and death and, on record, gives these preoccupations clever, deadpan twists.
The cover of Circus Maximus depicts Currie as the Roman soldier St. Sebastian, eight arrows piercing his body. Inside, the majority of songs riff on Biblical themes, with titles like “The Lesson of Sodom (According to Lot)” and “King Solomon’s Song and Mine.” But far from being Christian contemporary, this is compelling secular pop with enticing narratives, sung by a young man with a remarkably soothing voice. Acoustic guitar predominates, accented by snatches of violin, flute, even harpsichord — all of which serves to make the initially daunting, wordy songs extremely palatable.
The momentum of Circus Maximus was interrupted by Nicky, a three-song Jacques Brel tribute which features the agonizingly maudlin “Don’t Leave” and “See a Friend in Tears,” a spare-sounding soporific that would seem more at home on a This Mortal Coil album. (This EP is included on the CD of Circus Maximus.)
On The Poison Boyfriend, Currie dispenses with the religious imagery and enlists a backup band, while taking a less studied approach to consistently ace material. His bayonet wit is most apparent on the comically torchy “Sex for the Disabled”; even Barry White’s not safe as Currie delivers a horny faux-soul sex rap with everything but the heavy breathing.
Tender Pervert is a more synthetic-sounding disc that relies heavily on sequencers and other gewgaws in addition to the lightly strummed guitars. Luckily, the technology fails to overpower the songs, which are among Currie’s sexiest, funniest and most human. In between toying with New Order-like disco and electronic R&B, he constructs a couple of wrenching acoustic ballads (including the great “Right Hand Heart”) that would likely turn the most hardened non-romantic into a quivering tower of jello.
Inexplicably including a remake of “Right Hand Heart” that unsuccessfully attempts to turn the song into a Fat Albert-style (!) rap track, the weird Don’t Stop the Night is an unsubtle indulgence with wretched Eurodisco production that drains the lifeblood from fairly interesting, sexually explicit songs. Some are spared, however, including “The Guitar Lesson,” a peculiar, gauzy bit of jailbait erotica. In all, a surprisingly wrongheaded experiment, much of which would’ve sounded stale a decade earlier.
Creation wisely followed up this disc with a singles retrospective that’s obviously the perfect starting place for those wishing to immerse themselves in Momus’ adventurous oeuvre. (The title track of the previous LP appears here in a startlingly different — and infinitely more listenable — form, as “Ballad of the Barrel Organist.”) Although impatient listeners may find much of this mellow to the point of catatonia, the elegant songcraft reveals a true poet at work.