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This '90s kid turned his love of a decade into the internet's best mashup albums

Neil Cicierega's new mashup album, Mouth Moods, is so much more than just an extended “All Star” joke.

Neil Cicierega speaks at the XOXO Conference in 2016.
XOXO / YouTube

It’s been three years since beloved internet mashup artist Neil Cicierega released Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence, a pair of excellent albums that skillfully remixed beloved ’90s anthems and became cult hits online. Now he’s back with the surprising and delightful follow-up Mouth Moods.

All three of Cicierega’s albums throw your favorite ’90s songs into a postmodern blender — with a particular fixation on Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” The best mashups unite unlikely songs, lyrics, or musical ideas and turn them into something simultaneously familiar and new, and Cicierega’s are nearly always weird and/or wonderful enough to delight.

Each of Cicierega’s three albums emphasizes the enduring influence of the 1990s in modern pop culture. The artist, who has spent most of his life creating stuff on the internet, also makes digital music that’s about digital culture itself, and all of his work prompts questions like: What does it mean to take two songs with totally different meanings and fuse them into something else? What does the resulting mashup say about its components, and what does it say about us as listeners?

An album as smart as Mouth Moods could only come from an artist as steeped in internet culture as Neil Cicierega

To understand Cicierega’s artistry and its specific connection to ’90s internet nostalgia, it helps to understand that he’s been making internet art since the ’90s — since before most people really understood what the internet was.

Cicierega is perhaps still best known as the creator of the Potter Puppet Pals, a viral series of videos he started making in 2003. The videos feature hand puppets performing skits about Harry Potter; the most famous one, “The Mysterious Ticking Noise,” has been viewed more than 170 million times on YouTube and has become a beloved part of internet culture.

But as he explained to the crowd at 2016’s XOXO Festival, Cicierega is anything but a one-hit wonder: He’s spent his entire life immersed in creative technology and the web.

As a kid, he was homeschooled by tech-loving parents who encouraged him to learn a wide variety of graphic design, sound engineering, and production skills. By the time he was 14, he already had his first viral hit — 2001’s “Hyakugojyuuichi,” a short Flash-animated fusion of Japanese pop music and random pop culture images he found online.

At first, Cicierega became known primarily for the novelty of being a preteen internet artist. But as time went on, he began to produce more and more ambitious work. He called his short Flash clips “animutation,” and the clips spawned an entire subgenre when his fans began making their own “fanimutations.”

Cicierega’s early animated shorts, like “Hyakugojyuuichi” and 2005’s “Ultimate Showdown” — a jaunty cartoon about the end of the world — feel like relics of their time, but they all contain the core elements of most of today’s internet-based art: creative humor, fused with pop culture references and a sense of childish whimsy.

“That kind of twitchy humor and DIY ethic that children have is like the lifeblood of internet humor,” Cicierega said at XOXO. “That’s why it’s important to be nostalgic as much as you can and stay in touch with who you were as a kid.”

Cicierega’s mashup albums are the culmination of his interest in ’90s pop culture and nostalgia for his internet-driven childhood

Cicierega’s immersive internet background and ’90s nostalgia led to what may be his greatest achievement: his three Mouth albums, the first two of which were released a few months apart in 2014. Mouth Sounds centered primarily on Smash Mouth mashups, remixing “All Star” in different ways — with everything from the classical “Pictures at an Exhibition” to the theme from Full House to John Lennon’s “Imagine” — on eight of the album’s 17 tracks. Its follow-up, Mouth Silence, avoided referencing the band in favor of concentrating on other ’90s earworms.

Both albums combine clips from the ’90s with unique mashup pairings. Often, the results subtly challenge the accepted cultural divide between “high” and “low” pop music and culture. For instance, Mouth Silence brilliantly paired Hanson’s “MMMBop” with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” all layered over clips of shocked newscasters describing furry subculture. The whole mix became a cheeky hymn to subversion.

Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence quickly became genuine cult classics, with the A.V. Club calling Mouth Sounds “the punishing ’90s nostalgia mixtape the world deserves.” “Modest Mouth,” in which Cicierega mixes Smash Mouth’s “All Star” with Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” has since been heard half a million times on YouTube, and the albums have racked up more than a million combined listens on SoundCloud.

As the latest entry in Cicierega’s catalog, 2017’s Mouth Moods extends the themes explored in his earlier albums, but expands them as well. The result is an album that’s richly layered, fun, and full of thoughts about itself. It may be one of the best pieces of art the internet has given us to date.

Mouth Moods contains more nostalgia, more layers, more music

Just as he did on both of his previous albums, Cicierega created the 20 tracks on Mouth Moods by layering once omnipresent pop tracks on top of one another until they lose their individuality, fusing into a composite whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. But this time around, he mostly forgoes Smash Mouth, leaning instead on Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” for his idée fixe. He also jaunts more readily through other decades, from the 1970s to the 2010s.

Mouth Moods’ opening track, “The Starting Line,” is a sweeping combination of 15 songs from ’90s artists like Nine Days, Smash Mouth, Barenaked Ladies, Montell Jordan, the Smashing Pumpkins, and more. Melodies collide to form a cresting tsunami of sound that tears through the second track and deposits you gently at the beginning of the third, “ACVC,” where the iconic opening piano riff of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” meets the unadulterated cries of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” creating a visceral sensation of pure bliss.

The journey through these sounds is luxurious and disorienting. “Annoyed Grunt” is a rich mix of Annie Lennox, Austin Powers, Third Eye Blind, and the Home Improvement theme song. It’s followed by “Tiger,” which jumps back to the ’80s to combine a viral remix of “Ghostbusters” that Cicierega made in 2015 with INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and multiple “Eye of the Tigers” — that is, Survivor’s iconic Rocky III theme, mashed up with itself.

Finally, Cicierega throws everything into chaos by blending the Village People’s 1978 hit “Y.M.C.A.” with “Time” from the 2010 film Inception, because why not? By this point, you no longer know what planet you’re on or what timeline you’re in, but you also no longer care. All that matters is the tigers. And the music. And you.

Is Mouth Moods the culmination of all life on Earth? Is it civilization’s greatest achievement? Maybe — maybe. But it also makes an interesting statement about nostalgia and the internet.

Mouth Moods tempers Cicierega’s love of the ’90s with the limits of nostalgia

On the surface, Mouth Moods is earwormy, ’90s-flavored fun. But listen more closely, and it emphasizes the internet’s role in keeping the ’90s alive while ironically rendering many of the decade’s defining technologies obsolete.

Though Cicierega has stated that “[t]here's not a lot of intentional cynicism in my mashup choices,” there’s definitely a touch of wryness. By layering in media clips along with the music, he calls back to the lost age when a hard drive capable of holding a few hundred megabytes seemed cavernous and Blockbuster Video was a primary source of home media consumption. “Three hundred megabytes of storage capacity!” an astonished newscaster says on a track titled “300 MB.” “Think about the value ... the sky’s the limit!”

“The End” — which combines Linkin Park’s emo anthem “In the End” (2000) with the Doobie Brothers’ bouncy classic “What a Fool Believes” (1978) — can be read as a savvy callout to those Gen X-ers and Y-ers who’ve been feeling lost since they grew up to join now-defunct startups in the 2000s or unsuccessfully occupy Wall Street in the 2010s. “Keep on sharing those ’90s memes on Facebook,” it seems to say. “But it won’t change the fact that your existential angst was ultimately as premature as buying a laserdisc player in 1998.”

Still, with Mouth Moods, Cicierega successfully reframes even the most questionable cultural touchstones of the ’90s in a way that justifies the nostalgia so many feel for that period in history. The penultimate track, “Mouth Pressure” — which features a sublime combination of “All Star” and David Bowie and Queen’s 1981 classic “Under Pressure” — will leave you both grateful the ’90s happened, and relieved that the internet has kept the decade alive.

You can stream (or download) Mouth Moods in its entirety on SoundCloud.

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