World Party is neither a world, nor a party. Discuss. No, wait, don’t discuss — I have more to say. In fact, World Party isn’t even a band. World Party is pretty much one guy: musical polymath Karl Wallinger. Aside from the occasional guest musician, Wallinger writes, produces, sings, and plays every instrument on every World Party album. He burst on the scene with the excellent 1986 album Private Revolution, and followed it up with the even better Goodbye Jumbo in 1990 and Bang! in 1993.
I became a big fan pretty much the moment I heard “Ship Of Fools” on the radio in 1986, and have listened to all three albums regularly since they came out. They’re dazzling records, especially the first two. Not only is Wallinger great at writing every song and playing every instrument, he’s also great at expressing every genre, or at least every genre along the pop/rock/funk/R&B axis. He’ll go from a brilliant Beatles pastiche to a perfect Prince homage to beautiful Beach Boys harmonies. Even better, at least for the trivia-minded, is the way he has a tendency to slyly quote bits from some classic song, even as he reworks them into a World Party song, giving you lots of moments of recognition. “Hey, isn’t that the melody line from the bridge of The Who’s ‘Getting In Tune?'”. All that stuff makes those albums feel like treasure troves.
For various reasons, World Party kind of fell off my radar after Bang!, but I knew he’d done another couple of albums since, and every time he came up on the iPod shuffle I would think, “Damn this guy is great. I have got to get those other albums.” This year, I finally got partway there by acquiring 1997’s Egyptology. It’s tough to live up to expectations that have built for so long, and Egyptology doesn’t. It’s a fine, solid alt-pop record, but unlike Wallinger’s previous work, it is not dazzling, and it is not stuffed full of fun surprises. In fact, on parts of it he sounds downright weary.
Witness “Hercules”, which can’t even stir itself to be a full song, instead stringing together some halfhearted non sequiturs, and repeating the line, “You gotta be Hercules” amid long, aimless guitar solos. The first two lines of that song are, “You get up / you get down,” and Wallinger employs that trick of throwing together opposites over and over again throughout the album. In fact, pretty much the entire first track (“It Is Time”) consists of variations on that — “It is time to remember / It is time to forget / It is time to be dry / It is time to be wet,” and on and on. In “She’s The One,” “I was her / She was me.” In “Piece Of Mind,” “It’s not in heaven / It’s not the trees… It’s not the ocean / It’s not the air.” Et cetera.
However, even considering those complaints, Egyptology offers plenty of pleasures too. Wallinger can’t help but write catchy melodies, and he’s still a very very good producer and musician, so the tracks themselves tend to sound great even if their lyrics (and occasionally, their vocals) don’t always go the distance. There are also flashes of the old World Party playfulness, such as a crazy piano bit in the middle of “Call Me Up”, whose words are “Whatever happened to those bits in the middle / You know, those crazy piano bits?” The harmonies and instrumentation on “Vanity Fair” (one of the album’s strongest tunes) do a great job of evoking a 1960s Young Rascals-ish feel.
Best of all, though, is the head-and-shoulders standout track, and the only thing that really relates to the album title: “Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb.” Its start isn’t promising, throwing out yet another casual pair of opposites: “Do you find yourself in darkness? / Do you find yourself in light?” From there, though, it quickly delves into the real darkness, blossoming into a prodigious seven-verse epic in the Dylan mode. Each verse has 11 lines, followed by some variation on the title. These verses take us through an extended metaphor, and while I don’t have Karl Wallinger right here to ask what the metaphor means, for my money the Mummy’s tomb is the subconscious, the curse is the way that unresolved issues in the subconscious can steer us into dysfunctional behaviors, and the exploration of that tomb and exorcism of that curse is what happens in the process of therapy.
Consider: in the first verse he describes the questions that haunt him, struggles with his conscience, and says “There’s so much that I forget / Is that the curse of the Mummy’s tomb?” He’s in that initial stage, trying to figure out what’s going on in his mind, and realizing that he may have forgotten (or repressed) some key information. Then in the second verse he declares that “We’re all the bold explorer… asking for directions / To the house that knows no pain,” and shows us a character watching children play and wonders “who led us all astray?” He’s pondering the mysterious process in which children become encased in adulthood, and how very often the strategies we devise as children for coping with our situations no longer serve us well as adults, causing us to suffer and seek a way out.
The third verse starts to describe the descent, and the dangers inherent therein. There are demons, traps, and spies (echoing Dickinson’s line “The Soul unto itself / Is an imperial friend — / or the most agonizing Spy — / An Enemy — could send –“), ready to “seize the fool” who explores these inner recesses. Wallinger brings up the conscience again, and says “I’m too busy with my gloom,” highlighting the way depression can itself be a block to therapy. But at the same time, he longs to be rid of “the fever that’s the curse of the Mummy’s tomb.” In verse 4, he looks at how the “curse” can isolate you from others, and gives the most explicit link yet between the metaphor and the emotional concepts it maps: “And our vanity betrays us / And our nerve it disappears / After crossing the dark threshold / Into loneliness and tears.”
Verse 5 sees him deep in the process, confronting early experiences of family and parents. He depicts those parents as the king and queen of the family, but it’s also no accident that “mummy” is British slang for “mother” — Freudian machinery is certainly at work here, as he visits “a time so long forgotten / But it seems like yesterday / When the queen was in her palace / And the king was on his way / To the bosom of his family / To the holy golden womb / What was that love?” Notice that besides the royalty metaphors, Wallinger explicitly invokes the female body, specifically in a maternal sense. In the penultimate verse, he gives a great description of both how difficult and how rewarding therapy can be. It is a process of untangling and decoding the self, and the understanding thereby gained can lift an enormous burden from your life. “There are strange signs and ornaments / That’ll really tell you all / But they’re easy to misunderstand.” He ends the verse (before the one-line chorus) with “It’s up to you now,” which is the realization we all reach at some point when we’re grappling with ourselves.
That sentiment gets picked up again immediately in the first line of the final verse: “Nobody there to help you.” It’s the climax of the song, and in it the protagonist confronts a deep sense of loss, perhaps even the literal death of “mummy” — Wallinger refers to “life without the queen.” But in the end his soul becomes integrated, and hope returns with the realization that “There’s no curse… / Just a Mummy’s tomb.” When we come to peace with ourselves, when we really understand ourselves, we need no longer be trapped in self-destructive behaviors with mysterious origins.
Interestingly, the key realization Wallinger highlights is, “This life is but a dream.” I interpret that as the understanding that what I experience as my life is really the product of my senses interacting with my mind, which uses its pattern-matching prowess to attempt to impose some meaning on all the input it gets. Yet I have more control over this construction of meaning than I might think, and I have control over some of the input too. Though my mind is always at work constructing a narrative, I can step into the authorship role as new understanding shatters old assumptions, and as I make choices that determine (to a limited extent) what the nature of my experiences will be.
I’m not making the case for this to be the correct or the only interpretation of that song, but it is my interpretation. I think it’s a phenomenal work, and even though the rest of Egyptology might fall short of World Party’s previous oeuvre, “Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb” is one of their best songs ever, and well worth the album’s price on its own.