Sixteen albums and 30 years into their genre-bending, expectation-confounding career, the Mekons turn the volume down, break out the wooden instruments and craft haunting, bone-clinking songs about mortality.
It's been five years since the Mekons' last album of new material, the grand scale, countrified OOOH!. That would be a monumental pause, and maybe even a death knell, for most bands. But for a band as stubbornly persistent, as willfully still-here-despite-obstacles as the Mekons, it's just a pause for breath. They have, after all, made 16 albums since their conception in 1977. Survivors of the first wave of UK post-punk, they are among the minority of similar, vintage bands who have not reunited lately...because they've never really been apart. Not that it's always been easy. The Mekons have weathered every kind of label perfidy, and shrugged off every sort of trendy expectations. They've turned out eccentric oddities and acknowledged masterpieces with the same level of conviction. You get the sense that they have, pretty much, done exactly what they felt like for the last 30 years, damn the consequences, screw the economics.
In Natural's case, that meant getting back to basics, gathering "in the wilds of the English countryside," and by the sound of it, sticking to well-tried instruments, song structures, and lyrical material. There's a rusty patina on songs like "The Old Fox," its shivery harmonica curling like campfire smoke around slow-changing guitar chords. The lyrics have an almost Aesop's fable quality to them, a sense of one thing standing in for another. The imagery of an old fox "eating from the bin" is, for instance, specific and memorable in itself, but also a metaphor for aging, obsolescence and the approach of death. The melody and structure could hardly be simpler; yet there's a dreamlike, symbolic glow to it, especially when echoic voices rise from the background.
The music is traditional sounding, but not always traditional Anglo-American. The gorgeous "White Stone Door" starts with a malleted percussion right out of Africa and a surge of township harmonies. The world-ish cadence continues throughout, underlining Sally Timms' trembling vocals and Susie Honeyman's wonderfully dark swooning violins. It's an odd juxtaposition, the Appalachian folk and the African beat, but it joins without visible seam in a melting walking reverie.
Not all the songs are as delicate as "White Stone Door," though over all, this seems like a more restrained album than even OOOH!, and is obviously far less rock-oriented than the Mekons' early material. There's a rousing call-and-response stomp called "Shocking Cursebird" to liven up the mid-section of the album, and the dark, apocalyptic gospel "Burning in the Desert Burning" to add intensity near the end. The band even rock-steadies a little reggae with "Cockermouth," the sweep of violin careening through heavy Kingston backbeat. Still, it's the quiet ones that you have to watch. "Diamonds" starts out like a lullaby against a flutter of guitar and mandolin, gaining heft in the country blues guitar solo and rolling inevitably forward into a broad-shouldered folk chorus that you feel you've known all your life.
Many of these songs are about aging and mortality. The "White Stone Door" is pretty clearly found in a cemetery, and "Dark, Dark, Dark" wraps existential terror in dirge-like accordion. Yet the imagery is always grounded in concrete details. In fact, the mix of the uncanny and the ordinary, the combination of familiar pictures and dark overtones, finds its most effective expression in the closer, "Perfect Mirror." "Now we sit and shiver / Watch the cold roll of the water / We wait for fire and in the night / The black mountain above the lake / The image is still...like a perfect mirror". Life and death, realistic detail and mystic epiphany, homespun music and transcendence…each are two sides of the same coin. Even the weird stuff is, as it turns out, completely Natural.