How have the Mekons managed to keep going all these years, without becoming caricatures or falling back on cliches?
For one thing, the band has never taken itself too seriously, but by the same token, they are deadly serious. For another, they have a supportive label in Chicago’s Quarterstick, who host an album whenever the disparate and elastic Mekons can be in one place long enough to create something. Oh, and their questing musical minds, never under any pressure to produce or reproduce the expected. Not to mention the chief creative talents of the band, all busy with other projects and living thousands of miles apart. Keeps it fresh, one imagines.
This is all supposition, by the way. But last time we were talking Mekons, the band were celebrating 25 years and releasing the Oooh! album. Suddenly they’re marking 30 years with a few gigs and releasing Natural. For this latest opus, the band convened in Wordsworth country, thinking about “ritual, paganism and sacrifice… both ancient and modern”. Typically, though more than a little cheesed off with the powers that be, Mekons never sloganise and shout, preferring to use their lyrical talents to draw parallels between barbarism in all its forms, and to take refuge with the underdog. And so they endure.
Natural finds them, shorn of punk rock’n’roll leanings, and eschewing their proto alt-country, for a mostly acoustic setting that occasionally harks closer to 1983’s much-cherished and typically out-of-step English Dancing Master. Mainstays Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh and Sally Timms are joined by a handful of Mekons past and present to conjure lusty singalongs and eerie violin-led atmospherics.
Opener Dark Dark Dark, sung by Tom in inimitably suave-but-sickly fashion, sets the scene, “The twisted trees sing…dark dark dark”. Multi-layered drones of guitar, violin and accordion give way to the campfire exclamation of the group chorus.
Burning in the Desert Burning, far from arid, takes the form of a sea shanty; while Cockermouth, sung by Sally Timms (possessed of one of the most haunting singing voices in the English language, but somewhat under-used on this album), unexpectedly breaks down into a dancehall rhythm. Don’t be fooled though – this ain’t no carnival.
Where this album belongs in the Mekons canon, it’s hard to say. It sure as hell isn’t Leeds in 1977, and it doesn’t sound like anywhere or anyone in 2007. It’s a roots record alright, with a few crumbs of hope amidst the looming sense of armageddon. You can imagine the black clouds overhead and the icy winds cutting through its recording.
Twenty-odd years on, this could almost be the flipside of the band’s classic Fear and Whiskey – still smiling through gritted teeth, hearts on sleeves, fired by love and fury and booze, but with an even murkier landscape as a backdrop. Nonetheless, it’s unmistakably, unrepeatably, at times unfathomably, but almost always unpredictably, Mekons.