The new album from Mekons is not your typical fare for these pages. Deserted runs through a broad range of musical styles including punk, alt folk, even prog rock. It is a delight, but only for those with an eclectic bent when it comes to music.
The band has been around for decades, cultish enough that their evolution became the subject of a documentary, Revenge of the Mekons, in 2013. Serious punk rockers when they started as unskilled art students in the northern English city of Leeds in 1977, they are now known for hopping to genres as far away from punk as country.
There is none of the latter on Deserted, but the album certainly offers plenty of choice. It is clever, fascinating, and highly entertaining. Dare I say, exciting.
Let’s start with the first track, “Lawrence of California.” For a split second you feel as if you have put on The Clash by accident. Here is a wonderfully raucous punk number with thrashing guitar from band co-founder Jon Langford abetted by Susie Honeyman’s fiddle.
It is all about getting lost in the desert, which is where the album was written.
“We took time to ponder the vastness and the weirdness of the desert. Going to the country to get your head together is a ripe old rock cliché. We went to the desert to have our brains scoured,” Langford says.
We then move into “Harar 1883,” which starts off a bit punky, but slower and with more of a narrative before a self-destructing ending complete with background talking. The subject matter is splendidly obscure: French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s 19th-century running away to stay in the Ethiopian town of Harar, where he was “the only European, Haile Selassie’s father’s friend.”
Again, it is about getting lost in the desert, only deliberately.
There follows some post-punkishness from “Into the Sun,” which has a touch of ’80s pop to it (but not enough to make you wince).
It is at this point that Deserted gets a bit folky, with the back-to-back “How Many Stars” and “In the Desert,” the former sung dissonantly by Tom Greenhalgh — “Captain, captain, tell me true / Does my sweet William ride with you” — while the latter features the distant but melodic voice of Sally Timms.
It is all tightly brought together by Steve Goulding (drums), Dave Trumfio (bass), Rico Bell (accordion/vocals), and Lu Edmonds (various strings).
Now I did mention prog rock, so it would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful track “Weimar Vending Machine” (which, come to think of it, sounds like a name for a punk rock band). Not sure exactly what it is about (very prog, that) but it references pre-packed bags of sand, missing priests, and stars slipping through fingers.
It stands in its own right, of course, but I could not help thinking about some of the trippier Doors numbers. It even contains the Bertolt Brecht line “Show me the way to the next whisky bar” à la Morrison. Loved it.
Deserted is a real find. A bit strange, perhaps, but not unexpected for a band that named themselves for an evil, green-headed villain in a 1950s British comic book.