During the song “Sickness”, on the latest record from Matt Mehlan’s revolving ensemble musical project Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities, he sings a lyric that seems ironic when considering his own grandiosity: “You got a bad case of the big ideas.” Lucas is, on its own terms, a colossal-feeling record, teeming with crowds of instrumentation and refusing to settle on any particular musical idea for more than a minute or so. Its source of inspiration, however, should clear things up a bit. The record is named for the small town of Lucas, Kansas, which is home to the Garden of Eden. No, Mehlan’s not a Mormon with an off-kilter sense of geography—this Garden is a purely American tourist attraction, an eccentric bit of outsider art built in the early 1900s and devoted to one man’s screwy vision of Biblical lore. Some have said the Garden’s creator Samuel Dinsmoor had “dementia concretia,” an affliction suffered by those who’ve worked all their lives, and, upon retirement, can’t shake the itch to create, but don’t have the occupational structure to rein themselves in. It’s a “sickness,” sure, but one that occasionally results in some extraordinary work.
As far as I can tell, Mehlan’s not one of the afflicted, but that hasn’t stopped him from welding together an impressive musical contraption of his own, bound by anecdotal tales of an awkward life apart. Through Lucas’ tangled narrative, Dinsmoor and his creation feel like tangential characters, the equally misunderstood later-life counterparts of the unique-looking boy posing for the album cover. A lyric from “Hay W’happns” could come from either: “I got pockets full of gravel, my knuckles are skinned/ I got a wall made outta marbles and you’re not allowed in.”
Later, the vertigo-inducing strings and squelches of “Like it or Not” underscore the record’s trend toward the stifled sexuality of the teenage unconscious: “Every day he falls in love with the gorgeous backsides of every girl he sets his eyes on/ Follows them home to catch a glimpse/ But they never, they never, they never turn around.” “Fake Tits” is one example of Lucas mapping inner turmoil on the body’s exterior, explained at the beginning of the song when its instrumentation mirrors the unnerving clamor of an overactive and nervous imagination: “I don’t have that much trust in my body/ It’s down deep on th’ insides but worn like a novelty tee shirt.”
The slick urbanity of Git (recorded with the now retired suffix “and the Girl-Faced Boys”) is largely gone, yet the experimental spirit remains. Like OOIOO’s Taiga, Lucas is an outsize global-a-go-go m?lange of unceasing polyrhythms, Afrobeat guitars, free jazz, and Timbaland’s approach to kitchen-sink percussion. On “W’happns”, a skronky opening segment suggesting a prehistoric diorama roaring to life gives way to a loping rumble. Opener “What They Said” starts as a disquieting, hollow church revival of clapping and stomping—an uptempo version of Radiohead’s “The Gloaming”—before a luminous guitar emerges to guide the song to its conclusion, as the choir revels in the anachronistic provincial maxim to solitude “It’s different o’er there, they keeps it to themsel’s.” The nearly soulful, soft “Let it Out” is the record’s emotional reprieve, as Mehlan’s distant quaver gives way to a falsetto: “Hope needs you to believe in it, sugar/ Ain’t no other way out”.
The band clearly knows its strengths, and the record’s highlight is smack in the middle. The opening fanfare of the 11-minute “Don’t Worry” marries guitars that recall both Frank Zappa’s and the Grateful Dead’s mid-Seventies output with a clacking tribal rhythm and punchy brass, which wanes and reappears with Mehlan’s vocals, growing more and more restless and frenetic as it progresses. The lyrics mark a turning point on Lucas as well—the moment when the internal negotiations start to realize themselves tangibly. The chorus is a note of pragmatic hope, on the way to fulfilling the promise of the band’s new name: “Don’t worry, we can pump water to anywhere/ Electricity, too”. Skeletons never really make clear whether Lucas’ Garden is one created through aged anxiety, adolescent escape, or something somewhere in the middle. They shouldn’t have to, of course, and the record benefits from an approach that performs the intriguing disobedience of both.