That’s great it starts with a plane crash and The Unicorns are not afraid. Instead they are ready for the great rock and roll flame out– death in a plane crash, death in a car on tour, anything but death by sea or in the comfort of sleep(ing bags). “The prophecy is almost complete (cough), my finger’s on the pulse,” Nick Diamonds queasily intones, and thus begins the saga of The Unicorns, too twee to last, too rambunctious to go out any other way except explosively, too inventive to forget.
That prophecy would end up fulfilled almost exactly a year after the release of The Unicorns’ one and only LP, Who Will Cut Out Hair When We’re Gone?, with the band self-destructing from the tour for the album. The tour’s final date at The Engine Room in Houston in December of 2004 would serve as the band’s finale as well, unbeknownst to the audience or the growing cult around them until the band cryptically posted “The Unicorns Are Dead (R.I.P.)” on their website and in the process made themselves immortal. The Unicorns, for all their chaotic mischief and self-destruction, ended up being correct about having their fingers (hooves?) on the pulse and so many of the things that felt truly shocking about their debut– the wild shifts in style and aesthetic, the morbid humor, the collision of indie guitars and vocals with hip hop-influenced synths and drum machines, the, uh, flutes– can be found throughout so much of the more adventurous strains of contemporary pop, making them something like the missing link between Daniel Johnston and Tierra Whack, Devo and 100 Gecs.
Though The Unicorns only formed a scant three years before recording their debut, they had a remarkable confidence in their aesthetic and execution, placing them at the vanguard of the Montreal music scene, which became a focal point for indiedom at large in the early ’00s. The Unicorns’ contemporaries would include the likes of Wolf Parade (and all of its spinoffs), Godspeed! You Black Emperor (and all of its spinoffs) and Arcade Fire, who even collaborated with The Unicorns on a split release that never saw the light of day before their paths diverged. All three of those unwieldy enclaves would embrace being Important music to a degree throughout their lengthy careers but what separated The Unicorns from the start was their paradoxical belief that they were destined for greatness and that greatness was something to be mocked.
WWCOHWWG is full of moments that skewer rock immortality and pomposity, from the morbid only the good die young trappings of opening track “I Don’t Wanna Die” (and its bookending closer “Ready to Die”) to “Child Star.” But it’s most unabashed on “Let’s Get Known,” a glitchy indie pop number that begins in a whispered twee style over a lo-fi hip hop beat you definitely can’t study to that eventually seems to collapse in on itself. The opening line of “Say…let’s get known” comes off as a lark, the kind of “genius” idea tossed out by drunken friends sitting at home in their early twenties, which is exactly what The Unicorns were. But as the song progresses, the lyrics become bolder, more assured– “it’s gonna be soon, not later,” promise The Unicorns. And goddamn if they weren’t right.
“Let’s Get Known,” in a fitting bit of magic that would become increasingly more common to this very strange band, mostly came true. The Unicorns did become known, racking up laudatory coverage from important outlets that still exist (Pitchfork, the New York Times) and those that don’t but mattered when they did (Drowned in Sound). Despite the modern day bewilderment of a Billboard editor wondering how or why anybody ever liked The Unicorns back in the day let alone now, the debut’s appeal is pretty easy to describe: it’s an unfiltered tribute to the joy of creation itself in all its manic, anarchic glee and that commitment to fun welded to a do-or-die confidence made them outliers in their own era.
Sonically, melodically and philosophically, The Unicorns stood in stark contrast to both the reemergence of post-punk and guitar rock, with all its smug self-seriousness, and anti-folk, where abrasive voices and recordings often masked a desperate need for attention. Despite the presence of synths and drum machines, The Unicorns also stood out from the electroclash crowd– for all the ramshackle production elements and playground bickering, WWCOHWWG is a complex, serpentine work that rejects the idea of traditional verse-chorus-verse structures and more or less avoids repetition.
In his contemporaneous review for Pitchfork, Eric Carr applauded the band for “striking at the most fundamental structure of the pop song itself.” Carr went on to state “to nail beautiful, memorable lines with such remarkable ease is a feat unto itself, but to do so in essentially formless compositions is a different class of achievement entirely,” and that “The Unicorns continually and effortlessly sap the drama from rock’s favorite, most maudlin topics, and transform them into simple, charming, light-hearted fun [emphasis his.]” This was not quite the era of poptimism– as attested by the digs at the “laziness” of the pop mainstream peppered throughout Carr’s review– so The Unicorns served as a gateway drug of sorts for hipster millennials, the irreverent chaos of their material a reverse sugarcoating on the pill of diversifying music tastes, letting skeptical indie tastemakers know hooks were okay, actually, filtered as they were through a rebellious refusal to follow the rules of pop.
That internal dilemma comes through loud and clear on “Child Star,” a more than five minute long noise pop opus that feels similar to Tierra Whack’s modern day song-cycles in that it’s essentially a series of musical vignettes that makes the following shifts: a Midwestern emo texture intro, a baroque minor chord lament, a haunting organ interlude, an atonal post-punk freakout, a bratty lo-fi pop back-and-forth complete with toy piano and glockenspiel, and finally a quick burst of what sounds like dying instruments. Though it’s supposedly about doomed teen idol Corey Haim, “Child Star” feels like an audio representation of Diamonds and Alden Ginger’s love-hate relationship with fame, pop culture and each other– in the finale of the song, the two even bat “I hate you” “I hate you too” back and forth like bickering siblings trapped in a cramped back seat on a family road trip. Paradoxically, the music shifts from minor to major in this section, becoming more joyous as the duo feud with one another as well as with the pop idol that keeps sending their fan letters back to them.
Like so many other legendary musical pairings, the love-hate relationship between Diamonds and Ginger seemed to be a big part of what made them great and also what made them doomed to flame out quickly. So many of the best moments of the album start as almost sweet duets before the twosome begin sniping at one another, as is the case on the band’s would-be anthem “(I Was Born) a Unicorn.” In its opening verse, “(I Was Born) a Unicorn” the band is mostly in harmony, the melody picked out semi-delicately on guitar over an insistent beat and a solid, loping bassline. Barely a minute later, everything has gone to hell. As one voice shouts “We’re never gonna stop!” the other chimes in to say “I think I want to stop.” The argument progresses from there, as each member claims they write the songs and that the other thinks they’re doing it wrong.
As anyone with any interest in creative work knows, though, conflict is inherently interesting. That The Unicorns felt like they could fall apart in any moment, either in song or in their infamously messy live shows, added to the thrill rather than detracted from it. Where The Unicorns’ former comrades Arcade Fire lived long enough to see themselves become the villains, refining and softening their sound enough to become Grammy winning heirs to U2 before harassment allegations against their leader brought them down, The Unicorns achieved everything they set out to do and then broke up within the span of a year, completely avoiding becoming professional and polished enough to end up, well, boring. Diamonds’ follow-up project Islands (which also initially featured Unicorns drummer J’aime Tambeur) would adopt some of that serious ambition that the Arcade Fire had– including a string section– and with it he would arguably see more consistency and commercial success than anything connected to The Unicorns. But Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, with all its disruptive energy and conflict and rambunctiousness, feels fresher and more alive than anything anyone else associated with it has done since, and will likely remain that way another twenty years from now. By forcing themselves to be ready to die at any moment, The Unicorns managed to live forever.