Though few would have conceived of it beforehand, a collaboration between French composer and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier and American singer, lyricist, songwriter, and producer Mike Patton finds them a perfectly matched pair of musical reprobates. The two met backstage at the Hollywood Bowl during a 2011 tribute to Vannier's most infamous collaborator, Serge Gainsbourg. They hit it off and decided to work together, but figuring out how to accomplish that took six years. Eventually, after swapping files across the Atlantic over a long period of time, their complex, mutant, yet alluring art pop vision arrives on Corpse Flower. Each enlisted a cast of players in the studio. For Vannier working in Paris, it included the Bécon Palace String Ensemble, Didier Malherbe, and Bernard Paganotti, among others, to play his alluring charts. Patton, working in a Los Angeles studio, was accompanied by session aces Smokey Hormel, James Gadson, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen.
Musically, this set crisscrosses many genres, it is ultimately rooted in exploration and adventure yet grounded in sleazy chanson, lounge tropes, blues, cinema music, and sound library tropes. Patton produced it with a decidedly nocturnal flavor. Opener "Ballad C.3.3." finds him reciting from Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol over a bluesy electric guitar, a Rhodes piano vamp, and percussion, with sweeping strings, harmonica, and sampled ambience. It's basic enough to hook the listener but simmering in nightmarish madness. "Chansons d'amour" is almost exactly what you would expect, save for Patton's jaded lyrics, smoky recitation, and barroom singing framed by Vannier's strings, piano, and oddly reverbed percussion. "Cold Sun Warm Beer" brings back the blues, but it's extrapolated and shoved violently into crunchy, syncopated out rock, with shard-like guitars and bongos under the singer's growl, supported by an effects-altered falsetto multi-voiced chorus arranged by the Frenchman. "Browning" sounds like a mutant outtake from the Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue if it were arranged by Vannier, Keith Richards, and Gainsbourg. The decadent title track is a horror movie carnival soundtrack-esque tune with Patton reciting words that denote cuts of meat! "On Top of the World" is a lounge lizard's outre pop song, with a glam attitude complete with fuzzy basses and pristine guitars atop a tom-tom and snare beat before exploding in orgiastic dark colors and jagged textures. "Yard Bull" is a psychedelic Western blues soundtrack, complete with tinny harmonica annotated by an off-kilter orchestra framing guttersnipe lyrics. Closer "Pink and Bleue" is a sideways -- yet gorgeous -- string-laden homage to Jacques Brel that juxtaposes alcoholism, unrequited love, and self-inflicted violence: "When I drink too much/I shit my pants…singing an old love song talkin' about/you and me…A punch in the liver/a song pink and blue…." Corpse Flower is a dark jewel from two remarkable musical iconoclasts. It offers surprise, humor, revelation, tenderness, and excess, with flair and a certain tarnished elegance. It's a high-water mark for both men, albeit one born from the belly of hell itself.