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Conjuring the spirits of The Unicorns’ swan song

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs about ghosts.

It’s fitting to The Unicorns’ obsessions—death, fractured relationships, rock-star posturing—that the band would pursue a “better to burn out” career path, devoting its brief lifespan to a handful of buzzed-about recordings and a hectic touring schedule (the latter being the commonly cited reason for the inevitable split). That breakup left 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? to stand as The Unicorns’ magnum opus and concluding statement. The ramshackle, circuit-bent tracks therein are more than capable of holding up—more capable than they are of holding the band together, at least. A decade after the record’s release, there’s still charm left in the way tracks like “Tuff Ghost” sound one synth glitch or tempo shift away from splintering into a million pieces. All clattering hi-hat and claustrophobic menace, “Tuff Ghost” is indie-pop with a death wish.     

Given the number of times the word “ghost” appears on Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone’s tracklist, it’s fair to characterize the record as “haunted”—though it’s only ever haunting during the breathless race toward oblivion on “Tuff Ghost.” That quality can be heard in the Casio approximations of cobweb-covered organs, but it’s also part of the song’s poignant turning point, sung in duet by Nicholas Thorburn and Alden Ginger: “I want to hurt you / Well you can’t, ’cuz I’m already dead.” There’s a vulnerability to “Tuff Ghost” that all the cagey interviews in the world couldn’t conceal, a side of The Unicorns that’s more apparent in Thorburn’s subsequent work with Islands. The song’s eponymous specter may act invincible, but that doesn’t mean he’s invulnerable—much like the ill-fated act that dreamed him up.