I've never set foot in the 31st state, but when I listen to California I am transported there. Or, at least to a kind of cinematic stereotype. Palm trees rustled by mild summer breezes, half-dense urban sprawl at dusk, especially vain women, anonymous motel rooms, and countless other things flash in and out of my head. I have never been even close to that place and it's silly of me to try and draw conclusions based in reality, or try to unearth allegory from this album -- especially considering singer/keyboardist/usual lyricist (and legend, but I won't get into that) Mike Patton has remarked on how his lyrics are usually chosen for their effectiveness in enhancing the song in an aesthetic sense. It's rather nice, given the impossibly varied musical style of Mr. Bungle, as the pseudo-nonsensical lyrics and the experimental wanderings of the songs allow you to craft your own entirely unique experience.
As reminiscent of its namesake as this album is, it never brings up the location in song directly (or anything close, as far as I can tell), and in truth it is, of course, a vessel for the music. "Sweet Charity" opens with the sound of waves and seagulls, followed by a charming and lazy, rambling tune that quickly evolves into a lounge feel, Patton crooning, percussive miscellany appearing throughout. "None of Them Knew They Were Robots" begins with a slasher-movie-chase-scene experience before skidding to a halt, Patton conversational in his vocals. The song is an especially bizarre entity from lyrics to inexplicable musical progression within. Long story short, there are some metal riffs (death scream/grunts included) whispered Latin, camera shutters, what sounds like Patton doing Elvis briefly, along with positively baffling and incredible lyrics that I really don't have room to even begin to describe here.
"Retrovertigo" is the probably second most accessible song on California. Mike Patton showcasing just how touching he can sound, an acoustic backbone with some very subtle keys that escalates to the emotional refrain, complete with beatboxing in the background that somehow fits. Around the two-thirds mark things get especially bittersweet and quiet, the acoustic guitar alone with a xylophone before the decidedly not quiet climax of the song positively explodes, cinematic, somewhat tragic, powerful.
"The Air Conditioned Nightmare" picks up where "Retrovertigo" left off, but not without some oddities: clapping hands, marakas. Then, quite simply, another smörgåsbord of the unexpected throughout the entirety of the song. It's something of a pop metal surf rock horror amalgamation.
"Ars Moriendi" has a playful Middle Eastern theme, otherwise indescribable as a whole. "Pink Cigarette" is in the same vein as "Retrovertigo," remarkably accessible for a Mr. Bungle song, the easiest listening on the album and maybe of the band's career. The song is slow and lounge-like with a hint of Beach Boys, lyrics gloomy with that only reflecting partially on the music, with something else there. Regret? Longing? Fantastic song.
Needless to say by this point, California is all over the place. What is brilliant to me is that it still immerses me deeply into that place, a surreal, almost film noir California, as well as a mood that can't come close to being replicated or even really described. I continue to mention the state, but really the album is so intricately layered that my crude attempts to put words to the atmosphere it evokes really do it no justice. You have to hear it for yourself. Yes, this album is weird as hell, and yet still cohesive (especially compared to Bungle's earlier work) and I love every goddamn second of it. It's disappointing that there will most likely never be more from these guys as they split up after California's release and subsequent touring, but at least they went out with a masterpiece of an album.
Verdict: Epic Win [10/10] (champagne, your hair in the breeze)