All The Fame of Lofty Deed
or a bloke whose songs adduce Walter Benjamin and Emily Dickinson, Mekons frontman Jon Langford’s taste for lowbrow Americana goes a long way towards explaining the band’s lasting relevance. It’s been almost 30 years since the Mekons launched “Never Been In A Riot” across the same English battlefield on which the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Wire fought against complacency, unemployment, and worst of all, the market forces which reified insurgence as commodity. The song was an incoherent smear, a spitball on glass, what Greil Marcus admiringly called, “the shout of people who have invaded the bandstand during someone else’s tune-up”. It was a marvelous gesture; it augured nothing. Like its creators, “Riot” collapsed on itself. No future indeed.
The Mekons, unlike their peers, never figured out how to turn rebellion into money; for one thing, they never made any. They were pretty much ignored until 1985’s Fear & Whiskey—one of the most apt titles in rock history—captured the band’s ramshackle sound at its peak. Take six drunk men in a room howling over a drum sound borrowed from Gang of Four and songs borrowed from Hank Williams, mix tuneless guitars, sprinkle paraphrases of Theodor Adorno, sweeten with a fiddle, and serve to critics. Having triumphed with this country-punk hybrid, Langford (with equal contributions from bandmates Tom Greenhalgh and Sally Timms) at last realized—or stumbled on?—the career trajectory the Mekons’ past had repudiated.
Langford’s fecund solo career—four albums in two years!—is an amiable footnote to the Mekons’ raucousness. His fuzzy disgust with American capitalism notwithstanding, Jonboy digs folkies like John Anderson and Johnny Cash, and not just because they’re namesakes: he understands how they can bitch and smile at the same time. Talking politics is just another way of talking shit. His new All The Fame of Lofty Deed might be the friendliest music of Langford’s career, and, at 29 minutes, the shortest. Yet Langford, lassoing two distinct backing bands and—if you believe the liner notes—a tune recorded off the radio by guitarist Jon Rice, unveils a swagger that’s gratifying as well as sexy, and the Mekons were as sexy as Friedrich Engels.
Langford’s always come off like an ornery cuss, a guy who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The emotional landscapes of his songs are as contorted as his guitar playing, so if you can’t sort out his politics it’s not your fault. The lack of even tangential mainstream impact robbed him of the most honorable, lucrative, and hence most ridiculous pose of the last 30 years: the ranter as crowd pleaser, lamenting his success a la Joe Strummer and Kurt Cobain and eventually hemmed in by it. In Langford’s case, you can’t miss what you never had, and from all the evidence never wanted; this is a guy, after all, whose most inspirational line is “Destroy your safe and happy thoughts before it gets too late”.
All the Fame of Lofty Deeds contains no bad songs and several inconsequential ones. It’s more than a little reminiscent of Joe Strummer’s last album: no surprises, a well-greased band backing a lovable crank. Langford tells us we’ve been “Living a Lie”; that a world gone mad has forced him “Over The Cliff”; and, of course, that we’re living through “Hard Times.” Langford’s vigor and the ease with which the ace musicians adapt to country idioms offset his rather predictable lyrical tropes.
Langford digs deepest when he examines the burden of history. In “The Country is Young,” Langford imagines the U.S. as a kid with a fat ass, clumsy and self-absorbed, “not too big on the sharing.” That Langford cushions the vitriol with an elegiac melody reminds us of why this closet sentimentalist loves folk in the first place. The title track, an enervated rumination on the futility of grand gestures—coarsened by welcome, Mekons-like guitar peals—reminds us that the difference between a closet sentimentalist and a punk ranter is measured on the number of wrinkles on your forehead.