As mentioned not too long ago on this site, the Mekons are a hard band to pin down. Over the course of nearly 30 years, they’ve mastered punk, dub, reggae, alt-country and straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll. So (grumble grumble) why is it that a band of such talent keeps having its albums go out of print? That’s a discussion well beyond the scope of this review, but bless Quarterstick Records—home to the band since 1993’s I (Heart) Mekons—for re-issuing some of the band’s essential mid-‘80s catalog, including the reason we’re gathered here today, 1988’s So Good It Hurts.
A little context: It’s 1988, and the Mekons’ two previous albums, 1985’s Fear and Whiskey and 1987’s Honky Tonkin’ have helped lay the groundwork for the alt-country book of the early ‘90s (an obvious revelation now, one that no one knew then then). So what do the Mekons do? They ditch most of the alt-country, look-around-and- see-what-the politics-of-the-past-20-years-have-wrought, get angry and release So Good It Hurts, an album that contains everything from ethereal pop (“Ghosts of American Astronauts”) to faux-zydeco (“Poxy Lips”) to reggae flourishes (“Robin Hood”) to folk-rock (“Dora”, “Johnny Miner”) to, yes, plenty of hard-charging rock numbers. And while it’s true that So Good It Hurts doesn’t reach the heights attained by Fear and Whiskey or Honky Tonkin’, it nevertheless boasts a handful of great songs and finds the band’s politics as finely-tuned as ever.
So yes, So Good It Hurts is a political record, though it’s never ham-fisted or didactic; that is to say, the fine art of the tunesmith doesn’t take a backseat to the band’s message. And while the Mekons have always been socially active and sympathetic to the downtrodden (see Jon Langford’s anti-death penalty fundraising work with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts), one has to wonder: what took the Mekons so long to cut a track called “Robin Hood”? We’ll never know, but the song does the typical “take from the rich and give to the poor” trope, then pairs it with images of current injustices like “Winston Churchill gunning down the South Wales striking miners” and, as mentioned, pairs it with a reggae dub beat. Somehow it all works; methinks the funky beat helps the medicine go down.
Similarly, “Ghosts of American Astronauts” sounds like a sweet ballad, as dreamy and echoey as its title might suggest, until one parses the paranoia and vitriol in Sally Timms’ disarmingly ethereal vocals: “John Glenn drinks cocktails with God in a café in downtown Saigon” and “It’s a nice break from Vietnam (filmed in a factory)”. And those aren’t even the most incendiary lines on the album: That distinction goes to the opener, “I’m Not Here (1967)”: “Oh look, Nixon has arrived with Hitler as his very special guest”. Or maybe it’s “Vengeance”‘s “Reagan Thatcher dead and gone”. Really, pick any line, it doesn’t matter as the Mekons are plain angry.
Hell, even when they’re apolitical, they’re full of rage. “Revenge” (yes, this album has tunes called “Revenge” and “Vengeance”) burns on Timms’ righteous anger at an ex-boyfriend, although it’s nice to hear Timms play brassy as well as she plays dreamy; (sidenote: No voice, male or female, sounds better coupled with a fiddle than Timms’). We even get a bit of intrigue as it’s unclear who gets stabbed in “Poxy Lips”, but it doesn’t seem to be a right-wing American or British political figure.
In the band’s discography, So Good It Hurts is a fitting transition for the Mekons. There’s still a few trace alt-country molecules flitting around the record, (especially on the album’s b-side: more fiddles and twang), linking So Good It Hurts to the band’s two previous efforts, the anger of which they would carry with them through their next two albums, 1989’s The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll and 1991’s Curse of the Mekons. Still, a “transition album” from the Mekons is better than most other bands’ regular albums, and fans who prefer either the mid-‘80s Mekons or the early ‘90s incarnation would do well to hear where the band went and where it came from.
// Notes from the Road
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