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Remembering back to my art school days of art history, one of the most important aspects of surrealism was the uninhibited expression of real thought. This always fascinated me and I have found it especially applicable to spoken word work.

A while back Brian Beatty, once upon a time a coworker of mine and surreal enough in his own right, handed me a CD entitled The Balloon Man. He was always handing me strange things, mostly books and albums, and I quickly learned to pay attention to what he was handing me because chances were I would never have found it otherwise. Whatever it was often proved to be amazingly good. The Balloon Man was no different. It’s an album of 40 or so audio vignettes spoken by Bill Morrison, who was known around the nightclub and variety show track in the late 60’s as The Balloon Man. These vignettes were originally recorded for radio air play but were subsequently rejected for the simple fact that they are so damn strange. When I first began listening to the Balloon Man album, usually during the workday, I would often find myself frozen in mid-task, mouth open, brow slightly furrowed, listening intently to the seemingly improvised stream of consciousness that came from Mr Morrison, trying somehow to make sense of it. Trying to find some sort of pattern. Learn the code. Attain the key that would unlock the mystery of what the hell this man was saying. The only pattern that emerged was the intro and outro music that bumpered each minute long track. It created a wave that would rise and fall at regular intervals lulling one into a hypnotic like state. After listening to it for a number of days it began to wear me down. I gradually stopped trying so hard to understand it and found it be utterly entertaining, relaxing even. I haven’t listened to it in quite a while but it remains as fresh as the day I first heard it.

A short time after I was given the Balloon Man album I was given an album called Forced To Speak With Others by Glasgow artist David Shrigley. Brian had shown me Shrigley’s other work before, primarily books with simple line drawings and accompanying captions. Having been primed for absurdity by The Balloon Man, I was immediately captured by Forced To Speak With Others. Using the same strange and twisted, albeit surprisingly fragile, sensibilities as his drawings Shrigley’s tracks range from accounts of satanic rock festivals to satirical statements on family and beer. More free form than The Balloon Man, Shrigley uses multiple narrators and musical accompaniments to make each track a small little journey into very uncomfortable territories. While Morrison captures a very upbeat, American sense of the absurd, which feels more like a circus than anything, Shrigley’s work is utterly, bitingly, darkly, cringe-inducingly British.

Just last week another strange spoken word artist was brought to my attention. Mustafio. His tracks seem like entries in an audio-diary, chronicling his search for his missing car, or his friends plans for an underwater bar. The lo-fi homemade quality of these recordings makes Mustafio’s tracks seem as thought they were recorded and assembled in the broom closet of a mental asylum. His juxtaposition of words and phrases is like that of a non-english speaker, but his accent is unidentifiable, although it sounds vaguely eastern European. It’s the type of work that promises to reward the listener with many hidden delights even if the format from one track to the next is the same (much like Morrison).

I’ve stopped asking myself “What is this?” and have begun to develop a taste for kind of spoken word work. With it’s primary reliance on language rather than music the emotional reaction is more in the head and the mind than in the heart or the gut. It gets me thinking in strange new ways.

There has to be something that binds all these artists together. Some human trait that’s responsible for this type of expression. The artists I’ve listed here span 35 years, and are obscure enough that they may not even be aware of one another. I suppose that one could track these artist all the way back to early beat poets like Ginsberg, but there has to be something deeper. Something human. Something even Ginsberg shared. Something rooted in the brain. A switch that is only active in a few individuals. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I’ve learned to enjoy it.