365 Days of Mike Patton: “Vanity Fair,” Mr. Bungle (1999)

When Mr. Bungle released its third and final album California in 1999, there was no doubt that it was a departure from the band’s first two albums. It was more melodic and more mainstream. Hell, it was more cohesive.

That wasn’t by accident.

“The only thing I can really say about it is that there are more songs on this record than we’ve ever written together in the past,” Mike Patton told the AV Club in 1999. “When we started writing for this record, it became apparent that we were all writing in the song form more than we ever had, and we said, ‘Hey, it would be fun to do a record of songs.’ As opposed to operettas or jazz improvs or, you know, noise pieces—whatever the hell you want to call them. We thought the stuff seemed really strong, so we stuck with it. It felt natural. An electro-acoustic noise piece or whatever just wouldn’t fit on this record.”

One result is “Vanity Fair,” a song pretty much unlike anything Mr. Bungle produced. It’s about as mainstream as the punk/metal/ska/avante garde/noise/etc band could get. With some doo-wop thrown in for good measure.

According to bassist Trevor Dunn, he was originally going for more of a sultry vibe.

“I had written a slow Marvin Gaye style verse with an awkward bridge and I had sort of lost faith in it as a complete song,” he told Faith No More Followers. “Patton felt more inspired to do something with it than I did and he sped it up into a sort of doo-wop style and wrote a melody over it.”

Though the music is upbeat, one theory gives it a depressing pall. According to New World Ocean

“Vanity Fair,” addresses a society succumbed to the superficiality of cosmetic surgery.  The song’s title could be a reference to the 1846 novel by William Thackeray, a satire on 19th Century English middle and upper class society.  “The reality Vanity Fair reveals is the ugliness in a capitalist society. Thackeray said describing the reality must expose much unpleasant facts”.[28]  Patton reveals the ‘ugliness’ of plastic surgery in the first line:

“You’re not human/You’re a miracle/A preacher with an animal’s face.”

“Animal’s face” is a reference to collagen, a group of proteins found in animal tissue that is widely used in Botox and plastic surgery.  However, the ugliness of the lyrically matter is juxtaposed by what is perhaps the most appeaseable musical matter there is: Doo-Wop.  This displays the album’s essence of irony over nostalgia.

An ironic Patton tune? Sounds about right to me.

Previously from California:

To follow along on the 365 days of Patton, click here for a list of each day’s post.

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