Hooray! Finally, after ‘breaking a decade of omertà,’ the eponymous new Mars Volta album is here! I’ve been hoping for this moment for so long, and yet now that it’s finally happened, I’ve been weirdly reluctant to listen as obsessively as I assumed I would. I think I’m keeping a reverent space around it, because I’m too distracted by work woes during the weekdays and too brain-blasted in the evenings to listen mindfully enough to both appreciate the music and digest the lyrics. Clocking in at just under 45 minutes, it’s vastly different from anything they’ve ever done before, and I’m curious to know how this will translate to live performances. Having said that, setlist.fm is indicating that so far, the shows have been light on new material and to my (and assuredly everyone else’s) delight instead are very De-loused in the Comatorium / Frances the Mute-heavy. Just the thought of hearing “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” makes me tear up, and I’m awaiting news of a European tour with bated breath.

While I wait for something that will never be soon enough, I returned to Roman Lips, a record I overlooked during 2017’s glut of Ipecac Recordings releases. We all know the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, and yet, since I’m pretty sure all humans are hard-wired to have such a propensity, we do it anyway. Harry Potter books were given slick, streamlined covers when it became evident that adults weren’t just buying them for their kids, and marketers assumed they’d be embarrassed to be seen reading children’s books. Plenty of writers have been disparagingly dismissed as ‘chick lit authors’ because their novels contained more than one feeling and, as such, their books were adorned with covers saturated with pastel colours and cutesy fonts seemingly designed to alienate literally everyone. I’ve already gassed about the unfortunate covers of Elena Ferrante’s books, but clearly I  just don’t learn, because when an album cover is gross or unsettling, it has the unfortunate effect of pushing the album itself down my listen queue (Tychozorente’s cover still conjures Goatse-tinged nightmares).

I think we can all agree that the cover of Roman Lips is just fucking weird. A two-assed horse? Human duopede? It really does not help that the image is presented without text, so your mind can really absorb all the horror without any distractions. One of the frustrations of digital-only releases is that I often can’t find the personnel list, let alone the artist credit, and so far my googling has produced el zilcho. While the salvia-trip-gone-horribly-wrong vibe is giving Sonny Kay, it’s a departure from his usual densely packed digital collage pieces. I’ve seen much grosser and far weirder album covers, but this one is definitely high up on my list of least-favourite kinds of this. As a result, I procrastinated and prioritised nearly everything else from the 2017 tranche of releases before I finally got around to it and haven’t gone back very often since then.

Roman Lips is high-polished, slick pop that shimmies around the edges of sleaze. It’s also very familiar in ways I can’t exactly pinpoint. “Upon Golden Ice” and “He Gave Me a Key to Nothing” in particular give me serious déjà vu (very likely from Unicorn Skeleton Mask), but I’ve gotten completely lost in the weeds, so who knows.

The lyrics often remind me of the darkness hidden in plain sight on my favourite ORL pop record, Umbrella Mistress, to the point where Roman Lips could very well be its unofficial double-album. Themes of distrust and loss feature heavily, often masked in the kind of word-salad oblique poetry of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, where the strict definition of a word matters much less than the one given in the emotional delivery. Although ORL can’t match CBZ’s operatic belting intertwined with sensual susurrations, his snotty sneer and sighed resignation is just as powerful.

Old-skool jams reminiscent of Old Money are always going to score highly with me, and “Sequester Chagall” does not disappoint. It’s packed with swagger, merging punchy, poptastic fun and funky jams. I’d love to see the personnel for this record to see if I’m correct in thinking that Deantoni Parks is drumming, though I’m speculating via a baseless gut feeling. I get a delightfully louche vibe from the vocals, barely masking mockery but never labouring the point too long.

I am very fond of a deceptively uptempo song camouflaging rather sombre lyrics, and the ultra-short “Don’t Fight Back” is another fine example of bait-and-switch pop. If you told me this was an outtake from Umbrella Mistress, I would not be in the least bit surprised. There’s a lot of pain masquerading as arrogance (‘cause I don’t believe in your distress at all’) delivered with the cheery gusto of someone who won the argument battle but lost the breakup war, but instead of accepting defeat, just keeps gassing on about their hollow victory. For those who don’t listen to lyrics, this is a fluffy bit of fun, and that’s fine too (but listen to the lyrics).

The stealthy beat of “Souless [sic] Doubts” creeps up steadily, supporting a stop/start breathiness that could soundtrack a psychological horror film (and given ORL’s experience of both directing horror films and scoring soundtracks, it’s quite possible this is the case).

The slant rhyme of ‘do you love me in the way I want to be seen / can you go out and kill your family again’ might jar on paper, but it works here against a background of playfully funky guitar. I love the sheer fun of it, perfectly timed to launch into the next song before it becomes a bit too ludicrous.

I know I sound like a broken record obsessing about the origin of so many of these tracks, but the ‘scorned and twisted lovers’ of “What Could Give Did Not” and the painfully familiar vocals of “He Gave Me a Key to Nothing” really do send me around the twist. Having said that, some of the familiarity isn’t just me going obsessively mad; “Still Nobodies” reworks “Nobodies” from A Lovejoy (or possibly the other way around). This version has added a more textual sensuousness injected via ‘80s powerpop-ballad guitar and breathy vocals interspersed with plinky synth. If I’m unkind, I get mild Richard Marx flashbacks. Occasionally, something breaks through and I really like this song, but other times it feels a bit cheesy.

For the most part though, Roman Lips is built on a foundation of a solid rock underbelly supporting a springy pop top layer. While many tracks are contenders for the accessible ORL playlist, I’m still more likely to keep Umbrella Mistress as my go-to record to scratch a pop itch. As a background soundtrack, it’s often too distracting, as per the grating hi-hat antics and jarring effects peppered throughout “Bitter Tears” (not to be confused with either version of “Bitter Sunsets” from Nom de Guerre Cabal or Some Need It Lonely). “Yeah About That, About That” plods along as a half-assed dirge, and the rapid-fire stereo vocals are deeply unpleasant. “To Need Something” layers vocals pointlessly over “Disheartening Envelope”, causing cluttered confusion with a mismatch between the lyrical cadence and the melody, though I am probably biassed against changing anything from Weekly Mansions in the slightest.

The relatively brief running time also packs in 14 songs, so even when things don’t quite work, something else zips along that does. I’ve been remiss in avoiding Roman Lips and its hideous cover; it is a treasure trove of lyrical brilliance of the kind ORL does particularly well. For example, the petulant beauty of ‘you’ve got a right to be entitled / you’ve got a right to give back / each according to their conscience’; if only tedious tit-for-tat rows featured such a soundtrack. As it features my all-time favourite song, I will always be drawn to Umbrella Mistress as my go-to when in the mood for ORL pop, but I will no longer neglect Roman Lips and its god-awful cover.

Track listing:
Roman Lips
Sequester Chagall
Don’t Fight Back
Bitter Tears
Upon Golden Ice
He Gave Me a Key to Nothing
Yeah About That, About That 
Souless Doubts 
Still Nobodies 
An Informal Youth 
What Could Give Did Not 
To Need Something