First Listen: Os Mutantes, 'Fool Metal Jack'
Audio for this feature is no longer available.
One of the biggest losses in the translation of Latin American culture is Brazilian melancholy. It's more than a casualty of cultural misunderstanding; it's a product of the fetishizing of Brazil and its people, which strips them down to happy, over-sexed, party-hard alternatives to the grim denizens of "developed" nations. Which, in turn, does no justice to the depth and beauty of Brazilians' ongoing struggle: If you take away people's tragedies, you also water down the sheer awesomeness of their victories.
Brazilian melancholy — and how deeply it's been misunderstood — is on full display in the country's music. Take one of Brazil's most iconic songs, "The Girl From Ipanema." There's an entire television trope known as "The Elevator From Ipanema"; at best, it serves as background music to a sensual or exotic film scene. What's rarely revealed is that it's an angst-ridden song about sadness and unrequited lust. As the L.A. Times' Ernesto Lechner once described it to me, it's about Brazilian post-apocalyptic melancholy — about finally coming to terms with life's sad realities.
It's important to grasp the yin and yang of Brazilian joy/melancholy in order to fully appreciate the legendary band Os Mutantes. "Remember me? I was right there," its members sing in "Valse LSD," the gorgeous closing tune on the group's new record, Fool Metal Jacket.
Os Mutantes has always had a quixotic nature, ever since the band first began back in 1966. Its members insisted on bravely and goofily marching on, even as Brazil crumbled under a nascent dictatorship, much like the rest of Latin America. While Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso wrote overtly political songs and paid a steep price, Os Mutantes' members were bombastic, silly, drug-fueled jesters, stubbornly bent on dispensing joy, even under an authoritarian regime. The result was often more ominous than even some of Veloso's darker songs. "No one pays attention to me / No one calls me / But no one keeps me captive / No one fools me," they sang in 1968's "A Voz Do Morto" (The Voice of the Dead One).
They were wrong in one aspect: A lot of people were paying attention. Beyond their eccentricity, they were musically brilliant, and they changed the sonic landscape of South America forever. They attracted even more international attention after they imploded in 1978: Few foreign rock bands have captured the imagination of English-speaking musicians quite like this one. Kurt Cobain famously wrote a letter asking the band to get back together; Beck has had an ongoing love affair with Os Mutantes, while David Byrne has made an art of republishing the group's material through his Luaka Bop label.
Os Mutantes did ultimately reunite in 2006 with a new lineup, minus charismatic singer Rita Lee or bassist Arnolpho Lima. Like many fans, I braced myself for this Os Mutantes 2.0, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the band's madness has aged well. These are the weirdos who survived every Latin American apocalypse — well, some of them did — and their new album shows it, oscillating perfectly between melancholy and crazed stoicism.
Plenty of fighting anthems turn up, too, and they're as feisty as they are tongue-in-cheek. "Look Out" teeters on the edge of cheesiness, but rapidly evolves into a Muppets-on-motorcycles rock-out tune that's both cuddly and subversive. Os Mutantes' members have been nostalgic since their youth — precociously so, like kindergarteners having an existential crisis — but the impatience that used to lie beneath their gloomiest songs has been replaced by a sense of calm, apparent in tunes like the epic "Time and Space" and the stellar "Eu Descobri" (I Discovered), a Southeast Asian-infused song written by legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil. It all adds up to a lovely album, by a band that remains vital after nearly half a century.