It’s been a rough 20 years or so for Mike Watt since the demise of the Minutemen and then fIREHOSE. Always a busy man, Watt has released a spate of ever idiosyncratic, “interesting” discs that might provoke a bit of head-scratching upon first listen, but rarely inspire a second. So I approached Hyphenated-man, a 30-song “opera” supposedly about figures in a Hieronymus Bosch painting (or something) with caution.
Despite the highfalutin conceptual mumbo-jumbo, Hyphenated-man is a solid rock album in the vein of the Minutemen. Clocking in at around a minute on average, each of the brief songs is full of enough ideas for 10. The songs aren’t complicated for complication’s sake, but Watt’s inspiration seems to be at a peak right now.
The purposely oblique lyrics make little sense, but they don’t encumber the songs. Watt employs a backward songwriting structure, where the bass provides the melody and the guitar provides the rhythms. Watt’s vocals operate as a kind of beatnik narration. Bringing to mind other off-kilter groups, like Pere Ubu, U.S. Maple, the Pop Group, and, of course, Minutemen, Hyphenated-man is perhaps an acquired taste. But it is surprisingly accessible, fun, and rocking—provided the listener approaches with a sense of adventure. And it is by far the best thing Watt’s done in decades.