The Mekons - "Space in Your Face" (Ancient & Modern)
The Mekons could not have known the extent to which they were singing about their own future when they covered Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” in 1988. Back then, the Brits were on the upswing, ready to put a bit more rock in their country-punk hybrid and take it to the people via a contract with A&M. But these days, they could tell you plenty about getting back to work after day-job coffee breaks (one band member took my fact-checking phone call whilst working as a receptionist). Unlike Rod’s protagonist, they aren’t trying to rekindle any old flames, but they do seem to be making the best of diminished times. Ancient & Modern was recorded in 2009 -- 30 years after the release of the band’s first LP The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen -- but spent some time in business limbo while the band sought a new label in the wake of Touch & Go Records’ sudden shutdown. Ultimately, the group resurrected Sin, the self-managed imprint through which they released many of their best records in the mid-’80s.
The album feels heavy with post-disaster sentiments, but they’re not especially tethered to the band’s own troubles. The Mekons have been smarter-than-average bards of opposition from the get-go, and the weight that burdens them is the knowledge that the battles they’ve fought their entire adults lives (most of The Mekons are in their 50s, and accordionist Eric Bellis is 65) have existed for centuries, aren’t going too well at the moment, and will be around after their demise. On “Calling All Demons,” they invoke the memory of John The Baptist, who paid for inconveniencing the powers that be of his day by ending up with his head on a tray; on “The Devil at Rest,” they mull the sour fortunes of the working class. Folk have always sung (or spoken) about the unjust travails of powerless people, and the Mekons are part of that tradition.
Ancient & Modern starts on a harrowing note. “Warm Summer Sun” paints a particularly English idyll involving toast and cricket, and then ponders its ruins. When the dudes with the button push it, everyone gets blown up, and when they throw their money down some well, we all get dragged along; you don’t have to read too many English or American (or Greek or Syrian) headlines to get the sense that the guys with their hands on the switches have really let us down. The Mekons tell the toll of a lifetime of thinking about such things on “I Fall Asleep.” Guitarist Tom Greenhalgh rides a London bus and wanders through a park, but can’t connect to the joy around him; “My barren thoughts chill me to the bone,” he confesses in a voice of infinite heartbreak. But carrying on as long as The Mekons brings the knowledge that despair is just another phase, and since the band contains several singers, you’ve got just the right voice to capture each sentiment. Greenhalgh may have wretchedness down cold, but Jon Langford sure doesn’t sound like he’s rolling over and playing dead for anyone as he barks his way through “Space In Your Face,” the record’s one rave-up. And the fine measure of anticipation that Sally Timms evokes on “Geeshie” makes a night of drinking and dancing sound like a major triumph.
Ancient & Modern‘s one sticking point is that, like 2007’s predecessor Natural, it’s a slow grower. The album’s amalgam of ‘round the piano sing-alongs, updated dub effects, Middle Eastern string sounds, and the occasional splintered guitar riff yields its share of pleasures, but the power of these songs lies more in settling into the scenes the lyrics paint and making connections between songs and across historical eras over multiple listens. But if that seems a little old fashioned, I don’t mind. They wear it well.