exy – August 23, 2017 at 02:10PM
Back in 1987, the ROIR label released a tape called New York — one of many rather roughshod titles from the then-cassette-only New York outpost. The quasi-legit collection almost sounded like a bootleg, the kind of thing that would be traded in dubs from fan to fan. New York was the only live Mekons album ever in-print (though it was reissued in 2001 as New York: On the Road 86-87). That changes now with Existentialism.
Similarly, Existentialism also often sounds like a boot, but that’s a deliberate artistic decision. It was reportedly recorded around a single microphone at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, Brooklyn. At times, the rhythms overwhelm, yet this isn’t precisely a record that rocks.
The Mekons long ago began weaving in elements of American country and British folk, threading it through the nervy art-punk at their core, a maneuver that only gains resonance as the band slides into middle age; it’s defiance that has turned into a credo. Older they may be, but they’re restless, and when Existentialism was recorded in the summer of 2015, the songs were as new to the band as they were to the audience. The Mekons chose to cut the songs not long after composition, a move that only underscores the urgency behind the project.
Despite the haste, there are no stumbles on Existentialism, though there is rawness. The group is too good to let things careen out of control, but they’re smart enough to play upon the suggestion that things could. Certainly, this adds passion to the performance; it’s the sound of a great band creating great noise. The album pushes levels into the red, but sometimes it suggests more sonic detail than could be achieved from one mic. There’s little separation in the harmonies, and plenty of midrange smear, but instruments pop to the forefront.
Beneath the racket, there are ideas—some expanded upon in an accompanying 96-page book and the Mekonception video that documents the whole shebang—but they’re impossible to ignore in the songs themselves. Images of terror, upheaval, and loss float through the words. Turmoil bubbles to the surface on “Fear and Beer,” a pub singalong for the age of Brexit, but “1848 Now!” makes allusions to revolution past, one of several sly nods to history. The best musical tip of the hat is how “The Cell” plays with the melody of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” without ever following its contours.
Politics and tradition are nothing new to the Mekons, but what makes Existentialism resonate is that it’s an album of the moment, for the moment. As an aural document, it’s kinetic and crackling, a live recording that captures the excitement of a concert. As a complete piece, it says something powerful; it’s a call to arms for old punks, unrepentant artists, and assorted freaks, all pushing against the tides of modern life. It’s the Mekons and friends and family gathering together in a small room, shouting songs of protest and singing sad melodies, realizing there’s strength in being together, even if their numbers are dwindling.
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