Few albums concisely capture a band’s entire existence as Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? does for The Unicorns — particularly for what can for all intents and purposes be considered a debut. Sure, it helps that the LP recaptures some songs Alden Penner and Nick Thorburn had released on two self-released sets, but as a statement of self for the masses, Who Will Cut Our Hair embodies the supernova flash that the Unicorns were: all the frantic energy, the insane catchiness, the wacky world-building, and yes, the (sometimes) playful in-fighting and darkness. Penner and Thorburn recalled manic cartoon best friends (think Ollie and Andy on Bob’s Burgers or Walter and Perry on Home Movies, though in both cases after an art school education) full of so many ideas that could only be expressed in extreme Technicolor montages, pitch-perfect pop so hyper-charged that it can’t be contained in recognizable pop structures.
Much the way that scientists are now trying to understand the Big Bang, the album’s explosive 2003 birth was too brilliant to see all the details of exactly what was going on. Though they were making an impact in their Montreal scene (along with pals the Arcade Fire), the band had more or less exploded back out of existence by the time the rest of the world caught up. Now, though, this slightly expanded reissue allows for details and lessons to emerge.
While I remember bouncing around to “I Was Born (A Unicorn)” and “Tuff Ghost” in high school, I don’t think the fact that a large portion of the songs reference death ever connected. The little barbs tossed back and forth between Penner and Thorburn were in character, not actual acrimony. Right? The cartoon world the album had so completely constructed obscured in many ways the actual people who created it, the characters of “The Unicorns” overpowering Penner, Thorburn, and drummer Jaime Thompson (even though they shouted, “And we’re people too!” after singing, “We’re the Unicorns!”).
After 11 years and various follow-up projects that rounded out the very human creators, the bouncing isn’t as easy and painless. Even the album’s title is a feint, a little joke, but again, one based on death (or at the very least, absence). That human truth pervades the album, both in the universal sense and the band’s volatile ending. Penner and Thorburn bicker lyrically in multiple tracks (even over who writes the songs on “I Was Born (A Unicorn)”), and the album progresses from opener “I Don’t Wanna Die” to “Ready to Die”. Even though they’ve got high hopes on “Let’s Get Known” (“We’ll show the haters/ It’s gonna be soon, not later”), the songs are full of strong ghosts, wobbly bones, and even “nuclear war and a hotbed of trouble.”
But yeah, the album ends, “Ready to Die”: “Don’t pardon me, there’s nothing rude/ Things conclude, things conclude.” And it’s sung so sweetly, so softly; there’s no need for false bravado, just serene acceptance. There are still winking jokes about Biggie Smalls and commercialism, but it sounds as if The Unicorns have accepted their fate, ready to blink back out of existence (though maybe more of a caustic fight than a passive blink for those involved). That acceptance of finality might’ve come from the fact that their composition was such that it was clear they wouldn’t last long, but there’s a beautiful lesson to learn from the album too, one so much clearer as the band members and their fans click over the 30-year mark. Death and darkness haunt everything, even the cheeky synth tones and joyous guitars, but that shouldn’t stop you from dancing.
The four bonus tracks on the reissue don’t do much to change that perspective or to expand it, either. “Evacuate the Vacuous” hews close to a breakup jam, shifting from doe-eyed and beat (cue the Charlie Brown walk) to upbeat and hopeful (“everything’s okay, in its own special way”), and then back again, no one emotional state impenetrable. The live take of “Haunted House” finds Penner offering mischievous narration over “spooky” guitar and bass; the eight minutes are a nice look into what the Unicorns live experience was (goofy, frantic, twisty). “Let Me Sleep” is the real winner of the bunch, a look into the expansive art pop that Thorburn would dig into with Islands, though still traditionally Unicorns in its kaleidoscopic playfulness and shift-on-a-dime transitions. The last addition is a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Rocketship”, a choice that clearly sets the Unicorns apart from their contemporaries; Arcade Fire cover the grandiose likes of U2, while the Unicorns cover the outsider pop of Johnston.
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? has always been an album that grows on you, from the immediate new friend that you need to know more about to the longtime companion, its odd contours and shifting facets more and more comfortable and familiar over time. That’s never been more apparent than on this reissue. The Unicorns have been indie legends for a long while, but this is a reminder that they were (and thankfully still are) people too.
Essential Tracks: “I Was Born (A Unicorn)”, “Tuff Ghost”, and “Ready to Die”