When a band has lasted 44 years, there’s no reason a global pandemic should keep it down. Mekons, the routinely brilliant, never famous punk-folk-country-etc. collective, had planned to a session for its new album in April, in Valencia, Spain. When COVID-19 arrived, they cancelled the session but not the album, adopting a 21st-century version of the “exquisite corpse” method of art-making for some of the songs. Spread out in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York, Southwest England and Aptos, California, the members traded sound files via email, Whatsapp and the like, everyone adding parts here and there.
Whatever the final product – released exclusively on Bandcamp on Juneteenth, the day that Bandcamp gave its entire share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – may have lost from not having everyone in the same room, it makes up for in atmosphere, deftly deployed instrumental color, good songs, and heart. The effect is a group of old mates trudging through the darkness together, sharing wisdom and jokes. “Escalera” stalks forth on a skeletal acoustic riff, spacey keyboard washes, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh’s eerie, sun-fried vocals, and bits of murmured Spanish; “West Yorks Ballad,” sung by Greenhalgh, rocks briskly, tossing in some guitar solos and Revolver-style backwards loops; the spry “What I Believe At Night” decries a “useless fucker, shitty man” with a sing-song melody that sounds like it could have been nicked from a long-forgotten Christmas carol. Much of the album is slightly ramshackle, but so are many of this band’s greatest moments.
The best parts are often the beautiful ones: The lovely “Buried Treasure” skips along on a smooth bed of digital percussion and murmuring riffs, with Sally Timms delivering a golden melody (recorded in her kitchen) and invoking the Roman origins of various London roads to mourn something ineffable lost long ago. Mixing grimness with light remains a speciality, particularly on “The Inhuman,” which begins by talking about sleepless nights and gnawing shame but rides a blithely reggae-ish groove specked with fiddle and whimsy. We’re living through history; it’s a blessing to have Mekons along for the ride.