For the band LIFE from Hull, England, A Picture of Good Health isn’t just a catchy, sardonic title for their second album. It’s a catchy, sardonic theme running through the entire record. The band’s first album was hailed in some places for its social and political commentary. But the follow-up is much more concerned with personal well being, both physical and mental, or the lack thereof.
Musically, LIFE feels raw and stripped down. It’s a band with drums, bass, guitar, and vocals, and on Good Health they only occasionally add anything else to that sound. Also, while they identify as punk or post-punk, they often eschew the galloping tempos and the walls of guitar that so often dominate punk music. Instead, the interplay between the three main instruments and vocalist Mez Sanders is taut and distinct, with each person generally doing their own particular thing. So while the songs are short and aggressive, they also have interesting arrangements, making each track unique.
That is apparent right from the album’s opening song, “Good Health”. Bassist Lydia Palmeira plays fast, unrelenting notes, 90% of them on the same pitch. Meanwhile, drummer Stewart Baxter locks into the same catchy, pounding beat on his floor tom with snare drum accents. Mez Sanders shouts, “I’m a picture of / A picture of / A picture of good health” repeatedly, leaving brother Mick to mess around with guitar noise, occasionally joining the rhythm section. It’s an incredibly simple song, but compelling in its repetition, in much the same way as the Queens of the Stone Age classic “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.”
LIFE don’t try anything quite this basic elsewhere on the album, but they do see the value in repetition as a substitute for a big chorus hook or catchy guitar riff. “Thoughts” is a mid-tempo song with a bit of a dance-punk feel, as the rhythm section grooves along while Mick adds slightly creepy high-pitched minor-key guitar licks. Mez begins with ramblings both funny and honest, like, “I was thinking of becoming a hardcore drummer / To tone my arms” and “I was thinking that everyone I knew was less important than me.” The song winds its way into a short chorus. But the real hook is Mez’s thoughts, which in this context come off sounding very much like a younger, even more jaded James Murphy. But instead of taking seven minutes to devolve into shouting like “Losing My Edge” does, LIFE get there in two minutes and 20 seconds. The final 30 seconds is just Mez howling “I was thinking about sex” repeatedly, with the odd “I was thinking about food” or “booze” or “death” thrown in.
The 50-second final song “A New Rose in Love” employs a similar technique. The band issue a menacing drone while Mez states all the things that “won’t do it” and repeatedly concludes, “The only thing that does it is you.” This kind of thing could get boring, but Mez has a crackling energy and a gift for subtle variation, and it keeps the listener’s attention. Then there’s a track like “Excites Me”, which is closer to traditional punk. A pounding bassline, a bouncing drumbeat, and a snotty speak-singing delivery come together in short verses followed by a catchy chorus where Mez shouts, “It excites me / Excites me!” again and again over Mick’s compelling guitar tone, which is twisted by effects so much that it sounds like a Farfisa organ. It’s interesting to hear a similar type of repetition used in a more typical context.
The slower “Bum Hour”, shows another side of the band. Palmeira’s bassline handles most of the melody in the verses, accompanied by Mick’s guitar accents. Mez talks about, essentially, being a bored twentysomething. “I just want to lie and sleep in / And all my mates are out of town / This is the bum hour calling!” Most of the band drops out during the chorus on different occasions, making for a very different sound. The first time this happens, it’s just Mez, Mick’s guitar, and some unusual percussion, including go-go bells and guiro (a type of scraper). This is also one of the few times that Palmeira shows up on backing vocals, and hearing a female voice also adds to the song’s unique feel.
Then there is “Niceties”, which had the weird effect of reminding me of the delivery of Weird Al Yankovic, the feel of early 2000s dance-punk blip the Rapture, and the attitude of Les Savy Fav, another unconventional post-punk band. Also, I tried to figure out whether the song’s chorus was intentionally ironic or just very English. “I don’t care for niceties!” seems to be the band’s version of saying “stop being polite and instead just tell them to fuck off”. I failed in my quest to decipher this, but I lean towards the irony.
A Picture of Good Health is an album that grabbed me right away as a listener, but I wasn’t sure if I liked it much at first. Mez Sanders’ vocals aren’t very melodic, and neither are Mick Sanders’ guitars. But they are a compelling band regardless, and the rock-solid rhythm section is a pleasurable listen. There’s also a lot to be said for LIFE’s ability to change up the sound between their songs without changing their style. The songs I didn’t mention here each have their own quirks, and all contribute to the album’s overall theme of being your best self, or at least sarcastically “bettering” yourself. After spending more time with the record, I come down on the positive side and give it a recommendation; with the caveat that LIFE could be a bit of an acquired taste.