William S. Burroughs

Let Me Hang You

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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming

The first wave of writers who rose from the Beat movement in the '50s were initially seen as sloppy, insouciant, and even vulgar, and it took time before the literary establishment began to acknowledge them as an important force in American letters. Of course, respectability can be a double-edged sword. William S. Burroughs had no fear of rubbing people the wrong way with his fiction, and while he was in time justly celebrated as a visionary novelist, he always seemed to take pleasure in creating work that twisted accepted notions of decorum. A superb case in point: in 1995, producer Hal Willner coordinated a recording project in which Burroughs read extensive excerpts from his novel Naked Lunch, accompanied by musicians Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, and Eyvind Kang. Burroughs took tremendous relish in reciting the most outré and offensive passages from his book, and the label that released the album was puzzled by it and soon let it drop out of print. Just over 20 years later, with Willner's blessings, the Canadian garage punk-blues-funk firebrand King Khan has reworked some of those Naked Lunch tracks into even wilder form on the 2016 release Let Me Hang You. Khan has incorporated new music with the parts Frisell and his partners recorded for the 1995 album, and the fusion of sounds is raw, evocative, and high-spirited, ranging from upended Indian melodies and Velvet Underground-influenced garage rock to subtle waves of articulate noise. Khan's music and soundscapes are compelling, but he's clever enough to know that Burroughs is the main attraction here, and his music is lively but clearly meant to serve as a backdrop. (Khan also released the album through his label, Khannibalism Records.) Burroughs was 81 when he did his readings for Let Me Hang You, and he sounds like the world's most delirious and inventive dirty old man in this context, bringing his surreal tales of drugs, sex, death, and flesh alive with a perverse, sweaty realism that's often disturbing and just as frequently hilarious. Burroughs enjoyed offending a society that imagined itself too polite for his work, and Let Me Hang You shows Naked Lunch never lost its power to be hysterically low. King Khan appears nearly as delighted to contribute to the novel's hallucinatory weirdness, and this album joyously celebrates Burroughs' wordplay as well as the often corrosive thinking behind it.

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