Slurrup, the infectious comeback album by cult artist Liam Hayes, ends with the weirdest 45 seconds of 2015. As the triumphant power-pop closer “Fight Magic with Magic” fades, you can hear a group of people…well, slurrupping. It’s the sound of tongues lapping up…something? It’s unclear what those mouths are ingesting so excitedly, but you just know it’s pink and gelatinous. It’s simultaneously hilarious and queasy, grotesque and maybe a little dirty. It is the sound of Hayes’ own hand-drawn album cover, which depicts a trio of bald humanoids licking at something…well, pink and gelatinous.
“I really don’t remember what came first,” Hayes admits. “Did the drawing trigger the idea for that whole thing? Or did that whole thing inspire the drawing?” That onomatopoeic title is a word he made up to express an idea that’s both very specific and very general: “To slurrup something is to drink something very loudly, usually to indicate enjoyment. But it can apply to anything that you take in. And that’s the question. What is it that one is actually enjoying? What are you taking in in everyday life? How does it taste? Are you really enjoying it? Or are you just taking it in without reading the label?”
These are heady, heavy questions for such a bubblegummy album. Slurrup is a blast of sugary power-pop riffs, old-school rock-and-roll vocals, bizarro sound collages, and Bazooka-wrapper lyrics like “One way to make a Chinese suit! One way to make a duck salute!” Even though most of them barely clock in at two minutes, these songs stretch like taffy, explode in your head like Pop Rocks. Slurrup demands to be slurrupped.
Hayes is one of alt-rock’s finest confectioners—Willy Wonka with a guitar and an amazing record collection—but he’s also one of the most underrated. He came up in the Chicago scene in the early 1990s, playing under the name Plush and releasing a handful of inventively lush soul-pop albums, including More Becomes You in 1998 and Fed in 2002. The latter was an immense production that took three years and a phone book’s worth of collaborators (including surly engineer Steve Albini and famed R&B arranger Tom Tom MMLXXXIV, among others) to complete, yet somehow it remains available only as a Japanese import. A stripped-down version called Underfed appeared in 2004, but truly the legend of the album may be just as important as the album itself.
During his 20-year career, Hayes has popped up in some unusual places. That’s him tickling the ivories on Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues and Bobby Conn’s Rise Up, and he shows up briefly during a scene in 2000’s rock-critic comedy High Fidelity. More recently, he composed the soundtrack for the 2012 Charlie Sheen vehicle A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, which was directed by Plush superfan Roman Coppola. He’s a cult artist’s cult artist, a man who can be compared to Brian Wilson, Kevin Shields or Lindsey Buckingham without resorting to hyperbole.
His first record since 2009’s somewhat stilted Bright Penny, Slurrup represents a new twist in the Liam Hayes story. It is what very few of his fans thought they’d hear from him: a stripped-down album that sounds like it was recorded all in one take with a road-tested power trio. Which is actually more or less how it went down. Hayes played guitar and keyboards with the nimble rhythm section of John San Juan on bass and Eric Reidelberger on drums. “A lot of records I’ve down before had many, many people playing on them, and I wanted this is to be more of a record by a rock band. And that’s what it is. The personality of the group is there on the record. You can hear it.”
Loose and urgent, stripped to the bone but generous, Slurrup is a warts-and-all record, full of errant studio racket: shouts from the control room, countoffs, countdowns, and nearly three minutes of what might be a carnival midway or the El rumbling through his nightmares. It’s an album where the studio acts as a fourth member of the band. “It’s not like you haven’t heard that a million times on records already, but we didn’t cut any of that together,” Hayes explains. “It was all stuff that actually happened as we were starting and stopping the tape. It was like the drawing on the cover. I was using a pen, and you can’t erase your mistakes when you’re using a pen.”
Those mistakes—if you even want to call them that—add lively character to the album, from the candyfloss psychedelia of “Theme from Mindball” to the sleight-of-hand riffs on “Fokus” and “Fight Magic with Magic.” “I let the kid in me out,” he says. “And by that I mean that I let a lot of things happen and wasn’t concerned about things being quote-unquote right. It was more about trying to find some of the feeling and the fun, some sense of serendipity and maybe even a little mischief.”
As upbeat as the music is, Slurrup bustles with an undercurrent of melancholy, as though Hayes is trying to figure out what he’s slurrupping and how it actually tastes. “Greenfield,” with its tricky rhythms and melt-in-your-mouth synths, sounds like a break-up song—if Hayes were breaking up with his own brain. “A misstep to your mind just happened,” he laments. “A misstep, it’s your last mistake.” The very next song is “Keys to Heaven,” about going to a place “where you check in but you don’t check out.” The chorus may be bouncy and infectious, but it still carries a sting: “They offered me the keys to heaven, so I would stay inside their hell.”
Hayes could be singing about his experiences in the music business, or perhaps something even darker; whatever inspired the song, it’s that careful balance of the upbeat and the down that makes the song so affecting. “I wanted to convey some of the things that I enjoyed as a kid,” he says, careful not to give too much away. “I like rock and roll. I like magic and pranks. But there’s some heavy things going on alongside all that. Or behind it, I guess. It’s not all fun and games. The dark rides along with the light, and hopefully they’re communicating with each other.”