There’s something tantalising about a great-terrible album. Beck managed one with the characteristic aplomb of his earlier years on 1999’s funk rock extended gag Midnight Vultures, managing to top both worst and best album magazine lists, dependent on the opinion of consequent decades and individual editor in chiefs. With 1975’s Metal Music Machine, Lou Reed revolutionised the ways in which popular music culture parsed ‘genius’ from pretension, following a gold standard set by Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica six years earlier.
Whether or not Corpse Flower, the debut collaboration by two aged dudes Mike Patton of Faith No More and Jean-Claude Vannier, famed arranger for Serge Gainsbourg, Francois Hardy and other French chanteuses/chanteurs, ranks among them is for future generations to decide. On the one hand, it’s questionable tripe from creepy old men raging against the dying of the light; on the other, it comes off as a pornographic text of premeditated, nothing-left-to-lose hideousness, openly goading the listener to hate it. To listen feels somehow masochistic, which is to say, gratifying on some deep, primal level.
With an album title derived from the colloquial name for plants of the genus Amorphophallus — flowers which emit a smell like rotting flesh to attract pollinators like flies and beetles — the intertwined nature of beauty and ugliness permeates Corpse Flower from its musical qualities to its lyrical content. ‘Ballad C.3.3’ acts as the album’s overture, melding Vannier’s grandiose, classic French chanson sensibilities — romance strings, a wayward accordion — with distinct intonations of distorted slide guitar from American rock — as Patton’s booming, hammy narration sets the mood: “each man kills what he loves”. ‘Camion’ and the corny crooner ‘Chansons D’Amour’ takes us further down into their campy gutter world of pimps and scoundrels, one towering stomp at a time, in horror-soaked vaudeville styles Jacques Brel might’ve made alongside Laibach.
It might be more accurate to include similarly strange bedfellows like Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Soused among the project’s antecedents, but its humour lies with Metallica and Lou Reed’s Lulu — which is to say, between the profound and the puerile. One of the greatest tricks Corpse Flower pulls is with its catchiest song, ‘On Top of the World’, in which Patton, satyr-like, is palpably gleeful in growling the chorus:
“If I could get to the top of the world / I’d take a shit right on to this earth / if I could make it all the way / I’d take a piss down into your flames”
To paraphrase something often said before, this isn’t the worst album of all time; it just delights in seeming that way.