IN RETROSPECT, THERE'S ALWAYS been something unhealthy about the Mekons myth. By the early '90s, more than 10 years into their vitriolic, anti-capitalist career as capitalist pop-culture performers, they were lionized in many quarters as rock-art vigilantes. They'd recorded one of the most stinging, tuneful albums since London Calling (The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, for A&M), then abandoned -- or were abandoned by, depending on whom you ask -- their label. They feuded with virtually every industry representative they contacted, and seemed unable to get a deal for American distribution anywhere. Option magazine used to run a box in every issue called Mekons Watch, which detailed the group's ongoing struggles and lamented -- or was that celebrated? -- its ongoing ostracism from the industry.
The trouble is that many who love this band -- their cultishly loyal fans; their critics; even, one sometimes suspects, the Mekons themselves -- remember those days as a halcyon time, or at least a bitter but appropriate symbol of enduring worth. They really were rock-music Robin Hoods, but of an increasingly dubious sort. Yes, they stole great tunes and attitude and that raucous classic rock guitar sound back from the rich (i.e., the major labels and the bands that lay down for them), but they gave it to the snotty. At some point, their attacks on the culture and especially the business that spawned and surrounded them began to sound less like passionate irony (a neat trick) than confused self-congratulation. More important, they got less fun.
The band did find an American label, and they've been there for years, but the '90s were a rotten decade for them, musically. The albums got noisier and nastier, more iconoclastic but less listenable. The Mekons collaborated with ostensible outlaws like the scatological, overrated writer Kathy Acker. They abandoned traditional song structures and stopped writing choruses. And somewhere along the way, they stopped mattering.
These two new albums, one a full band effort and the other a solo offering from vocalist Sally Timms, aren't apologies or admissions of misdirection. They're just better. Journey to the End of the Night is a startlingly gentle waltz through the urban small hours. There are still no choruses, but there are tunes, and moments of straight soulfulness where the beat sways and the violin croons and that still-burnished guitar sound sets you swinging, feeling, humming. And if what you're humming is "My personal ignorance/is now public knowledge" or "Practice saying over and over/Give me 10,000 pounds," well, what were you expecting, "She loves you"?
The Timms album, meanwhile, is a marvel, a shimmering sleepwalk through Western-flavored songs about sad milkmen, Dr. Strangelove, bloodied birds and loneliness, swamped with wistful melodies and floating fiddles and Timms' affectingly narcotic vocals. This one has choruses and all. But then, Timms has always been the essential foil for head Mekons Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, tempering their tendency toward smugly self-satisfied self-destruction by simply opening her throat and singing like singing matters.
THE AUDIENCE FOR THESE DISCS -- beyond the remnants of the Mekons legion -- is difficult to imagine, though. And Langford and Greenhalgh's long-stated aversion to anything that smacks of self-promotion or even professionalism makes one suspect they'd abhor widespread acceptance even today. And that leads me to disturbing conclusions.
The Mekons started as a punk band, right when I became a punk listener. And punk, for all its fury, was a call to arms, an affirmation of power, an invitation to people. Then they were a roots-rock band, embracing Merle Haggard and Hank Williams Sr. long before there was anything called alternative country. Once again, the music was ostensibly of, by and for the people. Then the Mekons signed with Steve Albini's label group and got knee-jerk aggressive and even more contrary and became alternative. And alternative music, despite its greater accessibility, is by name and nature a rejection of the people.
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And so I find myself listening to "Last Night on Earth," Journey's sweetly apocalyptic finale, which boasts the closest thing on the album to a hook. It goes, "You can't live alone." And I'm thinking about Lester Bangs' prophetic assertion, soon after the King of Rock & Roll died, that we will "never agree on anything as we did on Elvis." And I'm thinking about rock music's current and possibly irreversible slide toward irrelevance, which began during the alternative decade that all of us, with our passion to save the music from what we perceived as what really was and still is mainstream, sales-driven hackdom, helped usher in.
And I wonder if we killed it.
MEKONS | JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT (Quarterstick)
SALLY TIMMS | COWBOY SALLY'S TWILIGHT LAMENTS (Bloodshot)