A Dream Within a Meme | Neil Cicierega’s “Mouth Dreams”

On September 30th, Neil Cicierega released the fourth installment of the “Mouth” mashup series, Mouth Dreams. To those not familiar, Neil C had previously released three full-length albums of mash-ups under the “Mouth” banner. The “Mouth” theme here refers to Smash Mouth and in particular the song “All Star,” which somehow hilariously, ambitiously, and downright-absurdly forms the thematic backbone of the album cycle. Check my review of the previous installment Mouth Moods for a closer look at the series and at Moods which, and I’m still quite serious about this, is one of the 10 best albums of the decade.

So, coming off Moods, Dreams has some big shoes to fill. Moods is packed front to back with the most uncanny pairings you’ll find in the form. It’s songs just work musically, and then often transcend sheer musicality to make giddily obscure jokes and references and produce brain breaking contortions of popular media. Dreams, it must be admitted, doesn’t consistently possess Moods’ same verve in its twisted musicality. However, on careful listen, it’s a more thematically ambitious album than Moods ever hoped to be.

Cicierega has a reputation for peppering riddles and easter eggs across the “Mouth” series in songs and album art, and there is plenty of that here to decode. Take, for instance, as one YouTube commenter has brilliantly noted, that Neil released a teaser for Dreams featuring a song by Green Day two days before the end of September when the album was due to drop. (I’ll wait while you piece that one together.) But while cheeky pop-culture references and uncanny song-wizardry are his stock-in-trade, Neil has crafted with Mouth Dreams a more in-depth statement on the series itself wrapped in a thematically coherent whole that centers the album around dreams and nightmares, waking and sleeping, love and obsession, and their relation to creativity, pop-culture, and the internet.

“All Star” only appears on the album once in the spooky distorted “Mouth Dreams (Extro),” but it is the work’s elusive monster, and like any movie monster, all the “scarier” for only being hinted at throughout and revealed in totality at last. Smash Mouth’s distorted vocal track here reads like Freddy Krueger, the knife-handed monster of the Nightmare on Elm Street series (one can also see subtle reference to the box and poster art of the Nightmare series in Dreams’ ‘80s-inspired cover art, which features Neil wide awake with head on pillow.) The dream that has Neil in its grip, that won’t let him sleep, that draws him back in like a ship to a deadly siren is, of course, “All Star,” and by extension Neil’s need to continue one of the most creatively fruitful unhealthy obsessions with the internet we’ve been lucky enough to witness. Fortunately for us, as is borne out by the existence of the album itself, and by the sound of a modem firing up in the album’s final moment, Neil has lost the battle. His monster has him.

But, on first listen, I wanted what Neil gave me in Moods, and I found it most especially one-third of the way into Dreams in the slyly nostalgic, and expertly mixed “Ribs.” All my favorite Neil moves are at the height of their power here. The track mixes Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” the Chili’s baby back ribs “I Want My Baby Back” jingle, Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People,” and The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in stunning synchronicity. The track’s groove is so strong that it’s easy to miss Neil’s most brilliant sly joke to date: “Ribs” is about that die-hard outrageous myth that Manson removed a rib to get himself that much closer to the prospect of self-stimulated oral bliss. The song even plays with this myth and with “Beautiful People”’s lyrics to suggest at one point that he did it to smell his own knees. Aaaand, I’m fucking dead.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”’s inclusion draws on that track’s odd late ‘90s re-emergence but also pulls the song back to the albums main theme of sleep. At this point, with most of the top-end meme-ready tracks behind us, Dreams focuses in on theme for the next several tracks. On “My Mouth,” Dreams‘ warped thesis, Neil rearranges Green Day’s “Brain Stew” to make an exhausted plea: “My mouth is trying to sleep.” But his plea rings meekly over the sinister pull of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” instrumental. It’s not the dreams of sleep that torment him. A waking dream has him.

“Don’t you think dreams and the Internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents.”—the wise words of the titular muse in the landmark 2006 anime film Paprika. Well, yeah, I really do think. It’s a connection that’s not lost on Neil, the album’s sleepless narrator, either. The internet is his nightmare on every street. It sucks him in against his will. It’s also where he goes to vent, speaking back to the internet in the language it knows. Mouth Dreams is his dream within a dream; a meme within a meme.

If Neil can’t get to sleep over his attachment to the internet, then I know his pain all too well. In the decade from roughly 1996 to 2006, I could count on one hand the number of times I got to bed before 2:00 AM. I wasn’t partying. It wasn’t girls. I was glued, like many of my generation, to a CRT monitor chasing the hyper-link muse down the rabbit holes of the internet. Even when I had to wake up just a few hours later and drive an hour to class on no sleep, I could be found in the wee hours with as many windows open as my Packard Bell 486 could handle guzzling up all the information and media my modem-soaked brain could handle. Later, when YouTube and the rest of internet 2.0 came around, I too, (far less successfully than Neil) took to creating internet content and chasing the elusive fix of hits and the rush of viral.

The haunting track “Cannibals”—which is “She Drives me Crazy” over numerous film production company logo themes including the Dolby Digital sound test—speaks darkly to the cannibalistic nature of meme culture eating itself to live and to Neil’s own relationship to his pet meme, the mouth eating its own mouth. Indeed, Dreams manages to speak sly self-critique through mash-up pairings which, at this point in the series, is the album’s strongest card. Careful listeners will find subtle references to past moments in the series such as the snoring sound from Neil’s biggest hit, “Bustin’.” Dreams dreams of its predecessors.

By the time Neil drops the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” into the mix on top of sinister synths or Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” on Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt,” these romantic pronouncements read like obsession. The mouth consumes the narrator. The dream has become a nightmare. Looking closely at the back half of Dreams, you’ll find that it’s composed mostly of pop and rock songs of complicated love/obsession: Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” the White Stripes’ “Fell in love with a Girl,” Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” or Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So.” These latter two play over classical favorites like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as dramatic (unoriginal) soundtrack climax to the building wake/sleep tension of Dreams’ horror farce as the album rages toward the dial-up modem ring of its final resolution.

Our narrator has lost to his monster, to his obsession, but we have won. Neil is back in the dream at the keyboard and mouse following his white rabbit, his great white whale, his rosebud, his glittering and thus gold muse, his “All Star” (at least until muse becomes monster and pursues him instead). Dreams stays on-concept for a surprising amount of its runtime. It doesn’t simply continue Neil’s run of great mash-ups, but attempts new plays on genre, theme, and narrative arc for the series. Starting again from the top, those aching harmonies built from the Yahoo™ yodel start to feel like an opening Shakespeare sonnet.

Each new iteration of the “Mouth” series begs the question: How many full-length albums can this labored joke possibly bear before it’s all too much? The answer, with certainty, is at least four. | Mike McCubbins

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