Yard Act 2024
Photo: Jamie Macmillian / Pitch Perfect PR

Yard Act’s ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ Suits Our Post-Pandemic Moment

Yard Act’s Where’s My Utopia? is a mother lode of cool sounds, critiques of late capitalism, meditation on fame’s futility, and a forecast of apocalyptic change.

Where's My Utopia?
Yard Act
Island Records
1 March 2024

Bands have always borrowed freely from the music around them. But it’s still hard to escape the conclusion that we’re in the midst of a golden age for magpie musicians, picking and choosing the shiniest bits from an ever larger and more accessible back catalog. There’s an art to assembling disparate sources into cohesive and meaningful new songs rather than just piling them in a glittering heap. There’s no question that Yard Act have mastered that art in their second album, Where’s My Utopia? Any group that can make me hear Gang of Four, Slint, Leonard Cohen, disco, and Frank Zappa over consecutive songs is digging deep into the crates of music history. Yard Act are by no means the only ones doing it, but as magpies go, they’re tough to beat.

What makes Where’s My Utopia? soar is the new work to which it puts all those found bits. Where’s My Utopia? is at once a mother lode of cool sounds, an incisive critique of late capitalism, a heartfelt meditation on the costs, promises, burdens, and futility of fame, and a forecast of apocalyptic change from Brexit to the climate crisis. Like the best pop music today, it straddles a knife edge between ironic mockery and earnest revelation. By refusing to resolve either way, Yard Act strive to puncture pop’s utopian aspirations in the same gesture that they want to live up to them. It’s an approach that wouldn’t have worked in the irony-laden 1990s they grew up in, but it’s ideally suited for our post-pandemic moment.

That role befits a band that emerged as if sui generis amidst the pandemic. (Although, all of the Yard Aact’s four members were experienced players in the local Leeds DIY scene.) In this, the comparison that keeps forcing itself into my head is Olivia Rodrigo, who exploded out of a Disney apprenticeship in 2021 with her first single and whose first two albums, like Yard Act’s, have topped the charts amid critical acclaim. Rodrigo’s songs also explore how fame amplifies rather than resolves personal issues, drawing from punk, riot grrrl, and alternative rock to bolster lyrics that mock her dilemmas and delve head-on into their emotional weight. Like Yard Act, she alternates talking back with earworm choruses over infectious hooks. (I’m leaving aside the power ballads, which are something else entirely). Megahits like “get him back” and “bad idea, right?” work because they’re riotously funny, irreverently dismissive of cultural norms, and frustratingly beholden to those same norms all at once. They splice together the subversions of punk and the affirmations of pop without hiding the seams. Instead, the seams and scars are what make the songs pop.

Listen to Yard Act’s irresistible single “We Make Hits“, and you’ll hear the same thing. It opens with scratchy hip-hop sampling and synths and bursts into a disco-funk bassline from Ryan Needham as frontperson James Smith tells a po-faced origin story of punk behavior and repudiation of success. It’s sort of talked sort of sung in that slightly apologetic manner typical of indie guys not so confident in their vocal chops. But then it breaks down into a post-punk rap that brusquely confesses a second “confidential” truth alongside that more familiar story: “One singular ambition we had / That most musicians aren’t willing to admit / And it was to this mantra we would commit.” At this moment, nearly halfway through the song, the monster chorus promised by the title bursts out of the confession: “We make hits.”

The track’s second verse settles back down to describe the subsequent signing to a major label, the climate crisis, and the absurd but somehow persuasive claim that “we just wanna have fun before we’re sunk / And if that’s the attitude you exude, then you know you’re really punk.” The willful contradictions pile on all the way through the hilarious outro, which channels vintage soul (“I’m still an anti-C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-T”) with the quintessentially 2020s nostrum of self-acceptance that “It just so happens there’s other things I happen to be.” “We Make Hits” is a clever, true, sincere, snarky, and danceable earworm. The official video adds further layers without resolving anything. The exposition is staged as a cheesy early 1980s MTV video and the chorus as a 1990s pair of trench-coated “hit” men who shoot their targets with cocked fingers rather than firearms.

The 1990s irony emerged from a postmodernist flattening of all meaning and experience into a single field of play. The throwaway aside that wraps the song (“And if it’s not a hit, we were being ironic”) doesn’t repeat that irony. Instead, it traces the distance pop music has traveled from that nadir. Over and over in these songs, Smith and his bandmates insist on the right to hold multiple irreconcilable positions together, refusing to resolve them either into universal oneness or meaningless irony. Their magpie assemblages don’t merge into a wall of sound or fall apart into a heap. Instead, they mirror multiple contradictory positions just as Smith’s vocals shift on a song like “Undertow” from Cohen-esque crawling rasp to jangly UK post-punk disco to rock-soul anthem to the spoken-word voice of God to poetic recitation to call-and-response to a brief flourish of gospel backing before settling down into a spoken-sung response to the opening Cohen-esque questions in Smith’s “normal” voice asserting that “we’re all bound by our own perspective”.

The song’s lightning shifts and turns chart the vagaries of a moral-philosophical question (“what’s the guilt worth?”) through a myriad of styles, poses, and positions. It begins with existential ruminations about God, struggles with responsibility to one’s family and loved ones, tries out 1990s irony (“What’s the guilt worth if you do nothing with it?”), and essays “sublime” poetry (“If you have known my quiet blood to break the banks of this mighty river / Then all you have really known is love”) before arriving at the concluding bounds of “our own perspective”. Just as the track builds a sum more than its disparate parts, so does the resolution keep all prior positions in play rather than rejecting them for a new final truth or flattening them into vacuity. The truth, like the song, lies in the visible joins and interplay of the assemblage.

There were plenty of predecessors, but a tipping point in digging out the past came in the late 1970s when both post-punk, disco, and hip-hop began exploring the potential not simply in recovering past music but in taking it apart to transform it into something forward-looking and new. Sampling, collage, and the assemblage of found fragments were simultaneously reverent and sacrilegious in their treatment of the past. This tension enabled these musicians to sort through the traumas and inequities of history without being bound to them or by them.

Perhaps the closest post-punk model to Yard Act’s strategies were their Leeds forerunners, Gang of Four. In singles like “Damaged Goods” or “At Home He’s a Tourist”, they created a stark tension between dissonance and melody, sung choruses and spoken verses, abrupt stops, twists and turns, and driving dance beats. I hear Gang of Four everywhere in Yard Act except in how they trade their predecessors’ post-punk gloom and outright subversion for millennial ambivalence, irreconcilable truths, and exuberant humor.

Yard Act haven’t missed the lessons of other post-punks, either. “Dream Job” channels the disco-rap of the Clash‘s paean to the workday grind “The Magnificent Seven” into a sardonic dissection of the music business that refuses either to accept its illusions or to reject its perks. In Where’s My Utopia?‘s opener “An Illusion“, Smith takes stock of his own disillusionment with the touring life and hyperbolically mocks his own aspiration to be “the greatest voice of the entire century” over a post-punk backing rhythm. But then he counters that move with a silky R&B chorus promising “to join the revolution … Once the wheels are in motion”, embracing what the post-punks used to call being coopted by the system.

In addition to the handful of tracks devoted to music business musings, other songs are devoted to elaborating a single metaphor. “Petroleum” is built on a climate change conceit that collapses the carbon economy into the requirements of human existence (“the soul needs petroleum”). Musically, it’s a pretty straightforward bass-driven rock-tinged workout until the chorus (“If I knew how to control it”) spins the song out of control into a full-throttle scratched guitar freakout. “When the Laughter Stops” digs into the audition and performance as a familiar metaphor for life, the Gang-of-Four-ish groove on bass, guitar, and Jay Russell’s drum fighting for prominence with Katy J. Pearson‘s driving synthpop chorus before both of them are superseded by actor David Thewlis’ recitation of the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy from the final act of Macbeth.

In the official video, Thewlis manifests on a black-and-white television, bedraggled in a trench coat and watched spellbound by the female prison guard who had lip-synced Pearson’s chorus. Yard Act, dressed as a vaudeville act, and the girl sneak out while she’s distracted. It’s a neat encapsulation of the balancing act most of these songs try to pull between overt significance and a more resonant meaning smuggled out between the lines.

Several songs are explicit reckonings with past traumas and current anxieties. In interviews, Smith characteristically denies, embraces, and complicates the autobiographical content of grade-school bullying (“Down by the Stream“), fizzy fish (“Fizzy Fish“), and, especially, the epic “Blackpool Illuminations“, which also touches on fizzy fish (clearly one of those bizarre sweets that only the English know how to appreciate). “Blackpool” unspools deliberately both musically and lyrically.

Like the Velvet Underground‘s eight-and-a-half-minute proto-post-punk recitation “The Gift“, it’s pretty cool the first time but does not encourage repeat listening. So it’s probably not a coincidence that late in this slog is where Yard Act choose to bury the promised resolution of the album’s title question: “Then I know that I don’t need utopia / ‘Cause the unknown is the only true hope for a brighter future”. This is true, but about as facile a truth as the chorus of U2‘s anthemic “Beautiful Day“, which blares over the Blackpool PA, we are told, in a later, stoned visit. Or does the “comfort” redeem the banality? Unlike the best songs on the album, “Blackpool” does not exceed the sum of its parts.

Seamed throughout Where’s My Utopia? are apocalyptic visions of dancing on the volcano and seeking the clarity we’re supposed to find in the specter of a coming end. There’s a constant push-and-pull between global hopelessness and social redemption, just as there is between personal trauma and individual recovery. Sometimes, it’s around the edges, as in the sampled Cold War voice that is cut off to conclude “An Illusion”: “It’s the end of the world, but how near is it? / I hope you’ll stick around for the full fore—.” Other times, it slips into the middle, as in the sardonic sampled voice in “Grifter’s Grief” that queries hauntingly, “What will you do when there’s no one left alive” over a frantic Sam Shipstone guitar break. Sometimes, it permeates the song, as fizzy fish candy are mobilized for a perverse description of dead pondlife, a child’s obsession with death but also a society’s ineluctable march towards the same.

The pandemic offered a vision of mass death and societal shutdown on a scale not experienced by most citizens in the UK since the Second World War. It also suggested a visceral preview of what the predicted future of the climate crisis is bringing to those like the members of Yard Act and their families who can expect to live long enough to see it. But the pandemic also offered those same citizens, like their counterparts in the US and elsewhere, endless hours of virtual crate surfing and countless stretches in the bedroom studio.

The results are distinguished not only by magpie sampling, talk-singing, and genre-blending but also by a new embrace of the emotional extremes offered by the coming apocalypse and the need for emotional openness and any form of consolation available. When this music works, as more often than not in the songs on Where’s My Utopia?, it reminds us not just that art can do nothing to stop the march of destruction but also that it actually can, somehow, more than most anything else. Yard Act tell us that they’re not so sure this is true but they still desperately want it to be.