“Do you remember the 1990s?”, asks Jon Spencer during one of Meat and Bone’s early refrains. He goes on to ask if we remember the ‘80s and the ‘70s, but those decades are hardly the point here.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s last proper album (not counting compilations and reissues) was 2004’s rather enjoyable Damage. After belting out harder edged blues/punk/rock than the White Stripes or the Black Keys could’ve dared to for over a decade, Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins took a rather unannounced break. Bauer and Simins busied themselves with guest spots and Spencer formed punk rockabilly outfit Heavy Trash with ex-Speedball Baby guitarist Matt Verta-Ray. This was in a period just following the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. Jack and Meg White went on to be one of the biggest alternative rock groups of the past decade, with Spencer and his crew of always noisier and less consistent comrades seemingly forgotten about by mainstream rock zeitgeist.
Why mention this? JSBX are hardly the most underground rock outfit in the world. Well, it’s important for framing the band’s first album in eight years. Meat and Bone, after all, comes nearly a year after the Black Keys’ Lonely Boy; Jack White’s released a solo album. Blues rock is experiencing the biggest surge of popularity its felt in years. How would a Blues Explosion album deal with this? How should a Blues Explosion album deal with this? When the blues are, arguably, number one…
Turns out; with fucking gusto and aplomb.
Opening cut “Black Mold” sets the album’s tone without hesitation. The deep, down-tuned fuzz of one guitar battling with the high pitched noodling of the other set to tight, snare heavy percussion and barely comprehensible vocals confirms what Spencer has been telling us for years: the blues is back. It’s difficult to escape the notion of the album being a re-affirmation of that idea. Each track seems like it has a corresponding Extra Width, Orange or Now I Got Worry counterpart. The Blues (Explosion) is back. The later JSBX flourishes of sampled beats, artist collaborations and hip-hop influences are nowhere to be seen on any of these stripped-back 12 songs. The music is squarely aimed at those who are willing to buy into Spencer’s mythos. Not so much his mythos of celebrity (there’s nary a “THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION! BLUES EXPLOSION!” shout on the record), but his mythos of the blues; always more as idea than genre descriptor. Feelin’ like a God, but havin’ to pay the rent, drinking from a bottle or getting the fuck off the stage, needing a job (a J.O.B.) etc.
It’s the sound of a band who knows it has a legacy, but doesn’t care. They’ll reference their other, better songs if they want (“Boot Cut” almost comes across as a “Bellbottoms” in-joke were there any possibility anyone who hears this album hadn’t already heard Orange countless times). They’ll crank the vocals too far into the red. They’ll slip innocuous instrumental jams between the dance punk songs. Spencer doesn’t have the swagger of the ‘90s, but he still wants you to remember that decade when his idea of the blues was number one only if you believe it was, not if you saw it on Billboard. There aren’t any proclamations about the blues here; in a post-Lonely Boy landscape, there’s no point in yelling that any more. In a ‘90s world of ‘too cool to look cool’, it was audacious to tell everyone that you were the number one blues singer in the country in a cheesy Elvis accent. In this Pitchfork world, it’s de rigueur to posture about pretending that you’re bigger than you are. Spencer and crew back track to the earliest days of the band and let the fuzz do the proclamations. The blues is back, but Spencer won’t tell you this time.
Meat and Bone is not a perfect album. It never quite rocks as hard as it could, nor is there quite enough variation in the writing (even on a 39-minute record). It’s choppy; the songs are obviously meant for a live context; you actually miss hearing if the blues are number one. But constancy and pleasing the crowd were never JSBX’s M.O. The Blues Explosion isn’t playing the sounds that are in vogue. It isn’t playing the songs you might necessarily want to hear. It’s playing songs that are quintessentially not of this time (and not in a forward-thinking way) and like every record Spencer’s touched with his three-piece Explosion outfit, the music is always better when its playing than in memory. But it is for all these flaws that make the album so essential. There isn’t the polished sheen of El Camino. There’s no reflective “Hip Eponymous Poor Boy” moment to be found without a wink and a nod. Even the Kills (always the essential ‘cooler than thou’ minimal blues punk outfit) reach more progressive moments than JSBX do here. This is an album made for its own sake. The sounds aren’t so much a throwback as they are a throwaside — to a world we didn’t reach. What if the idea of the blues was number one? Not the rock n roll eventually of sound the blues promised. Would we be richer for it? Do you remember the 1990s?