Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Liner notes

The Mekons: The Curse of the Mekons/Fun '90

The Curse of the Mekons was released in 1991, a banner year for what was suddenly being called alternative rock. True, the colors were just beginning to unfurl as the year ended--its signal release, a little something by Nirvana called Nevermind, didn't surface until September 24. Still, this was a boom time for many former undergrounders, from old hands like Nirvana's rabbis Sonic Youth to relative newcomers like Perry Farrell, of Jane's Addiction and the soon-famed Lollapalooza Festival. For the Mekons, however, it was like Nirvana never happened. Their moment was 1989, when Rock 'n' Roll came out on A&M. In the wake of that album's failure to render them solvent or famous, The Curse of the Mekons was, until now, the only post-1985 Mekons album never released in America. I caught them at a CMJ Halloween showcase that year. Mekons gigs rise and fall for many reasons, so maybe they were just flight-weary or not drunk enough, but they seemed dispirited. Drummer Steve Goulding, who had motored the surge that began with Fear and Whiskey in 1985, had already relocated to Chicago. Within a few years Jon Langford would follow and found the Waco Brothers, the most serious side project of his many-tentacled career, and Sally Timms would emigrate to Brooklyn, leaving Greenhalgh the Mekons' only Brit and putting a serious kibosh on rehearsals.

Alt-rock was no bastion of optimism. It dealt in angst, and political disaffection too. But it had a lot of what was lionized as "energy"--Nirvana and Pearl Jam went mainstream by galvanizing metal-inclined headbangers. Philosophically and personnelwise, the Mekons had no guitar god in them, and while they've always gone for a more '50s-rooted collective energy, Rock 'n' Roll was where that peaked for them. Said Greenhalgh of Rock 'n' Roll shortly after Curse appeared: "It feels like a job slightly too well done. I felt we were making a coherent Mekons album that for me isn't as interesting as pushing a bit further and maybe making something that you lose control over. I feel Curse has got slightly more depth to it. It's a bit more enigmatic--more open, broad, panoramic." Langford still preferred the earlier record, but he knew what Greenhalgh was talking about: "It's more relaxed. It has a different atmosphere--it's gentle in a way." A case in point is a cut that has only gained bite in the ensuing decade, Sally Timms's painfully crystalline reading of John Anderson's "Wild and Blue." Anderson will never be a totem like Buck Owens or Johnny Cash. But track for track this Nashvillian was the finest country artist of the '80s, and for a band that romanticized honky tonk to give him their all was a sure sign that they wanted more than rock 'n' roll, or alt-rock either.

Tempos are more moderate on The Curse of the Mekons. Much vague multivalent atmosphere seeps in between the sharper notes--synthesizer, harmonica, and bagpipes in addition to Susan Honeyman's violin. Greenhalgh's voice, which predominates, is querulous, preacherly, and tends toward a quavery falsetto. The overall feel is mournful--angst that's resigned, or maybe just depressed, but anyway not defiant in the style of Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. Lest you suspect self-interest, however, what's got them down doesn't seem to be their failure to achieve fame or solvency--not explicitly, anyhow. Rather it's an event that for them will remain far more significant than Nirvanamania. They're "dinosaurs" that way, say so themselves. They care about glasnost, the Berlin Wall, the fall of (Soviet) communism. And in this, of course, they're very un-rock and roll. Neil Young may have sung with ambiguous brilliance about "Rockin' in the Free World." But it was a little hard to know just exactly what he meant by freedom. The Mekons, unusual enough for getting on "capitalism"'s case in so many words on their last sally, take it one step further this time. They utter the name of "socialism" itself.

The relevant text is track nine, the Langford-sung "Funeral," but it wouldn't mean as much if it didn't follow the Greenhalgh-sung "Sorcerer" and the Timms-sung "Brutal." Until it turns to a low-pitched guest rap by returning communard Kevin Lycett, "Sorcerer" is entirely in falsetto, the necromancer in question a "bourgeois sorcerer," seducing "whole populations" into--what? perhaps nothing more than contentment--with its "million factories/department stores and mills and banks." "The abyss is close to home," Greenhalgh warns over and over after Lycett has intoned his vision of a present smashed to bits by an inescapable "progress." "Brutal" is far less metaphoric, a drugs-in-history lecture featuring the East India Company, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the aforementioned Berlin Wall. That's why Langford carries so much weight when he reminds us that "this funeral is for the wrong corpse." Socialism isn't dead: "How can something really be dead when it hasn't even happened."

Like all the Mekons' records (Rock 'n' Roll is the exception), The Curse of the Mekons fleshes out their anarchist principles by abjuring power--it's messy, slightly inchoate, as unreconstructed and inconclusive as their nevertheless radical politics. Summed up by "Funeral," it makes a point few Nirvanamaniacs had the inclination or the historical knowledge to comprehend, perhaps even to care about. It marks the end of the Mekons' working band period and the beginning of their continuing life as freelance entrepreneurs in the marketplace of information capitalism, where corporate hegemony and uncontainable chaos chew eternally on each other's tails. It ends with Langford thanking Jesus for their beers and their rhymes-with careers. No, actually it ends with a "producer" saying: "Take it from the top, think girls, think money, think Bermuda." Why do I doubt that any of the Mekons had ever been to Bermuda? Why do I think they won't be spoiled if they do?

Longtime Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau has written on the Mekons in Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists From Vaudeville to Techno (Harvard), Christgau's Consumer Guide: Album of the '90s (St. Martin's Griffin), and Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (Da Capo, out of print, it happens to writers too). Snippets of this commentary, fewer than he had hoped, are cannibalized in the above notes.

Collectors' Choice Music CCM-202-2, Apr. 24, 2001