My favorite Mekons song doubles as my favorite economic system: Brutish and short (if not particularly nasty), “32 Weeks” is an uncouth two-minute rant in which an enraged, bellowing Englishman announces roughly how long you have to work to earn the money to buy various products, from the titular 32 weeks (a car) to just one week (a mattress) to two hours (whiskey) to six minutes (a loaf of bread). A blaring two-chord guitar riff staggers about in the background; between his conversions, the bellowing Englishman develops a succinct and wonderful life philosophy:
Get a job
Get a car
Get a bed
Released in 1979 by fresh-faced, delightfully crass Leeds gentlemen who’d probably never held out behind a counter long enough to buy a mattress, this is merely very funny; a quarter-century later, revisited on a record wistfully titled Punk Rock, and with the Mekons themselves having slowly morphed into scrappy folk-punk elder statesmen, it’s wearier, bleaker, and even funnier. The bellowing Englishman (quite possibly a different bellowing Englishman) now has a bemused, battered voice that betrays how much whiskey his life has earned him: He roars “Get DRRRRRRUNK” as though ripping into an unwieldy hunk of beef, well-done, well-played.
Now the Mekons are 30. Starting with 1985’s Fear and Whiskey (fear, incidentally, will always be free of charge), they’d embraced a shambolic, apocalyptic alt-country—always fully formed and expertly half-assed, covering Hank Williams and what have you—that has since fueled more than a dozen records and around that many lineup changes. Which brings us to last month’s Natural, their latest, and . . . their latest. Not greatest, not worst. The mood has long since turned
post-apocalyptic, with creaky violins and dourly strummed guitars and mournful marimba and craggy voices of shell-shocked folks retreating to a pastoral English countryside that has overpowered our once-great civilization. Think Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” our factories and Dairy Queens choked now by dust and ash and menacing flora, a planetary rebirth we humans won’t survive. No song lingers long enough to earn you a loaf of bread. It closes with “Perfect Mirror,” a solemn shuffle with lyrics as dire (The trees are dead . . . We wait for fire . . . We used to dance) as the harmonies are gorgeous.
Whether you enjoy Natural is immaterial—like Bruce Springsteen’s (slightly more upbeat) Magic, it’s mostly just an excuse to tour, though instead of untold months selling out enormo-domes, the Mekons are touring for two and a half weeks, infiltrating slightly more intimate spaces: Gramercy Theater, say, the Wednesday-night crowd sizable and devout. Eight Mekons sit in a half-circle and sing their songs of jovial despair, as though they are the wizened elders and we merely the campfire. Between bouts of despair, there are jokes about how old everyone’s gotten. Lots and lots of jokes.
In fact, they barely qualify as jokes. Ringleader Jon Langford immediately attempts to explain the stage layout: “The reason we’re all sitting down is”— “You’re old!” someone in the front row shouts. After a rousing, Poguesian opening salvo of “Beaten and Broken,” Jon suggests that they’ll all lie down for the second half of the set. Shortly thereafter, he prefaces the downcast new “Give Me Wine or Money” by saying, “This is a song about the old ways, and the old people doing the old things in the old towns, eating old crisps that have gone stale.” His repartee with gorgeous longtime bandmate Sally Timms plays like a top-shelf cruise-ship comedy routine: “Jon wanted a pole built,” Sally sighs, as Jon prepares to dance around lasciviously, thrusting his crotch about like a slightly more lucid Robert Pollard. “We didn’t have the budget,” Jon counters. “We didn’t have the stomach,” Sally adds. “I do,” Jon notes, patting his middle. Sally sighs again. “Does anyone have anything that makes old men more cheerful?”
A Mekons concert seems to work in that regard, actually, on both the crowd and the Mekons themselves. Each major player takes his or her turn in the spotlight: Tom Greenhalgh, a nattily dressed charmer who looks and sings like Tom Waits if Tom had taken better care of himself, belts out “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian” like a rubber-limbed carnival barker. The severe-looking Lu Edmonds righteously wields his saz, a long, pointy, violent instrument—half-lute, half-sickle—that seems constantly in danger of stabbing someone in the face and allows for some badass soloing. Jon does lewd Riverdance. (“Thank you from the bottom of my crotch. Thank you.”) And best of all is Sally, sort of the hybrid Nurse Ratched/Jessica Rabbit of the group, dryly directing traffic (“It’s nearly 11 o’clock. We should get on”) and providing the band’s sweetest, breathiest moments, from “The Hope and the Anchor” to “Ghosts of American Astronauts.”
The vibe is free-wheeling, goofy, and increasingly tequila-soaked—the Mekons completely botch one song, the Natural dirge “Dark Dark Dark,” just to illustrate the difference between playing it loose and losing the plot altogether. And despite the good lord, we are OLD theme of the evening, over two hours the mood turns quietly triumphant. “I imagine we’ll be doing this in another 30 years’ time,” Jon announces; “Tell your children or your trustees to bring you to the show,” Sally adds. And though it takes an awfully long time for all eight to wander back onstage for an encore (they’re all “senile and pissed,” Sally notes, sighing yet again), the fully rocked-up version of Fear and Whiskey standout “Hard to Be Human Again” is worth the wait, Jon standing on his chair and genially thrashing about. You’d hope someone like the Arcade Fire can still do stuff like this in 2035 or so, but such grizzled longevity is much harder than it looks to obtain. “Not bad for a bunch of old farts!” jeers the front-row heckler. It takes 30 years of your life to earn such praise.