US: 24 Aug 2010
UK: 30 Aug 2010
It’s no stretch to say that Jon Langford is one of the great populists/raconteurs of our time—friend to the common man, voice to the voiceless. And while some of his projects have possessed varying degrees of sonic “punkness” (the Mekons and the insurgent country stylings of the Waco Brothers, namely; but also the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Killer Shrews and various solo collabs), they’ve all been imbued with Langford’s restless, righteous lefty spirit. Old Devils, Langford’s first solo record proper since 2006’s excellent Gold Brick, may not be top-shelf Langford, but neither does it find our hero mellowing in old age. No lion in winter, Old Devils is an enjoyable addition to a vital artists’ eminent discography.
With some friends both old—the Mekons’ Sally Timms, fellow Waco Bros Alan Doughty and Joe Camarillo—and new (though chronologically old)—blues/funk sage Andre Williams—Langford peels back the façade on 21st century America. The ringing “Getting Used to Uselessness” finds a lonely narrator wishing he had accrued more than power over his life; “Self Portrait” and “Luxury”, funky and folky, respectively, acknowledge the power of personal and cultural delusions. Heady stuff, but you can definitely tap your toes to them—thank Doughty’s elastic basslines for that. Meanwhile, “Book of Your Life” is a perfectly acceptable addition to the subgenre of book-as-life metaphor songs, notable for Sally Timms’ ethereal voice and Jean Cook’s sharp violin.
Langford has kept his pointed lyrical barbs sharp all these years throughout his discography, and Old Devils is no exception. “Death Valley Day” sums up the Welsh Langford’s adopted homeland in one damning couplet: “This house is full of stuff / Don’t you think we’ve got enough?” And I’m still wrestling with how to interpret the title track’s assertion that “we believe with out reason / that there’s nothing to believe in anymore”—is it the sigh of a man giving up or the last angry man’s disbelief in his countrymen? Given that the closing track muses on the “strange ways to win wars,” here’s hoping it’s the latter interpretation.
Langford’s looking ahead (or at least at the present), but he’s always held his music up to the past as well. (This is a man who, with the Mekons, covered “Trimdon Grange Explosion,” after all.) “Pieces of the Past”, a lesson about, among other things, Caribbean pirate Henry Morgan and the whitewashing of history (“pieces of the past are safe to handle at last”)—and narrated by Andre Williams, no less!—could’ve been a Gold Brick holdover, given its epic content and scope. The song feels a little big for Old Devils, though, a suspicion that is confirmed when a noisy coda signals the inevitable uncorking of messy history. Too, the fascist-mocking “Flag of Triumph” could be an outtake from the Wacos’ Bush II-lament Freedom and Weep.
All told, it’s not so much that Langford is repeating himself on this record, as it is a case of not being able to teach an Old Devil new tricks. Cough.