espair is the Mekons' muse. When a band devotes most of its career to cataloguing economic privation and apocalyptic visions, it risks cynicism and indifference. But details have never been the Mekons' strength anyway. This blowsy collective from Leeds had the true punk spirit: their guitars sounded like dogs in blenders, their vocals off-key, off-pitch, and oft-putting. "Production values" was a term they read about in Variety or something. Which is why it's a surprise that ever since the release of 1989's The Mekons Rock `N' Roll they've been on a pretty good, pretty professional roll. Whether those albums signify at a level beyond the politics they share with their claque is a question only you can answer.
So first things first: Natural is their prettiest album; in spots it's almost pastoral. Guitars don't so much caterwaul as purr with menace. Aural space is filled by marimbas. Vocalists Tom Greenhalgh, Jon Langford, and Sally Timms sound great, even though Langford's patented dry heaves aren't as articulate as the ones he stretched to tuneful effect on the superior 2004 solo album All the Fame of Lofty Deeds; is he aiming for a Bob Dylan effect? If so, his bandmates’ songs emulate the spirit of Modern Times: they've recorded lush genre exercises, hazy on the details, with a gooey center. That's what happens when resignation atrophies into acquiescence (at least Dylan sees genre exercises as windows rather than walls). This was not the case with 2002's OOOH!—the closest these comrades came to marrying the boozy communalism of, say, the Pogues' Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash with Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia. Although neither John Ashcroft nor Dick Cheney were ever mentioned, a more terrifying, terrified response to the events following 9-11 wasn't released that year (in comparison Bruce Springsteen's The Rising is that artist's Natural).
Opener "Dark Dark Dark" is exactly the kind of song you expect the Mekons to write; you can write the lyrics yourself in a Mekons mail order contest. It's also Natural's most striking tune, as didactic a statement as The Edge of the World's "Hello Cruel World." A pity they weren't inspired to lecture us some more—this album could use "Dark Dark Dark"'s rhetorical force. Otherwise Natural flaunts the Mekons' newfound craft, to mixed success. Sally Timms does her raspy-sibyl routine on the lovely "Diamonds," and "Give Me Wine Or Money" is, like the inept reggae of "Cockermouth," a charming reminder of the band's disshelved past, and thus quite welcome. The rest of Natural confines its bitching to homespun pleasures. No doubt it's the easiest thing in the world for Greenhalgh and Langford to pass a jug of cider around the table and write a vaporous rant that's as muscular as their voices and intelligences will allow, but committed liberals like these guys have nothing to prove to each other—not when there's a body politic out there that needs engaging.