California’s High Desert is heavy with rock history. It’s where country-rock icon Gram Parsons had his corpse cremated by friends; where an Irish band found a name and cover image for a great LP; where Jim Morrison dropped acid and made a movie. Now The Mekons — those zany, erudite and beloved British punk-country-reggae-rock survivors — join the processional with Deserted. Recorded near Joshua Tree, the LP loses itself in the desert and finds timely survival metaphors everywhere. And it burrows deep into desert mythology without invoking any of the hoary narratives above (they’ve already done a Bono tribute, after all).
Instead, they conjure visions of a swashbuckling Peter O’Toole astride a camel on “Laurence of California.” They quote Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” on “In The Desert,” expanding their punk-poet forbearer’s meditation on the collapse of empire into more recent history (choice quote: “My name is Blank/A creature of Bush and Blair/Darkness and despair.”) And they invoke Arthur Rimbaud’s Last Temptation-in-reverse through the Somali desert in “Harar 1883,” with warbling Everyman Tom Greenhalgh channeling the voice of another great poet who’s thrown in the towel to deal coffee in Ethiopia — a century-plus before internet art economics made that again seem a smart career move
As always on Mekons LPs, there’s grim humor. “Weimar Vending Machine” salts puns (“Iggy pops up in Berlin”) into a delightful Bowie tribute that greets the heart of darkness with Eno-esque synth squalls, boozy hollers of “the priest is gone!,” and a laundry list of delirious end-time visions: “Mankind snivels, footprints stretch /Across tattered meadows bloom round in circles of sex/ a snakes eye blinks staggers and dims/ A bubbling cauldron of sad lonely beans/ A dirty vest.” (Hey, at least there’s sex.) As bad as things look, beauty, especially in the natural world, ultimately wins out. “How Many Stars” takes the classic form of an English folk song about a man lost at sea, and woman who dies of a broken heart, the band wondering at the sheltering sky in raggedly sympathetic harmony. And “After The Rain” offers a promise of post-apocalyptic rebirth, where we might steel ourselves against unforgiving habitats and perhaps evolve into more suitable forms: “Hunkered down in this barren hole/Bristling exoskeleton antenna/ Come back later … You should see us after the rain.” It’s the blooming desert and its inhabitants as testimony to resilience, invoked by a crew of joy-marauders who’ve embodied resilience for four-plus decades. Things may look more fucked than ever, but why stop now?