Live on KEXP. Mush, December 2019.

This is What Austerity Sounds Like

Mush’s Lines Redacted

It’s not easy for popular music to surprise these days. And it’s even harder for it to pull off that feat without becoming perverse or pretentious in the process.

That’s what makes Mush stand out. Despite tapping into reservoirs that have been running low on novelty for decades, this Leeds band still manages to produce songs that avoid clichés without thereby compromising their musical appeal. 

Their fabulous new album Lines Redacted builds on the excitement of last year’s widely praised debut 3D Routine. Lead guitarist Dan Hyndman, bassist Nick Grant, drummer Phil Porter, and former guitarist Steve Tyson – who passed away tragically in December – fuse the angular Thatcherite post-punk that was the first album’s calling card with the down-tempo interludes popularized by American alternative rock bands at the end of the Cold War. 

Mush are no balladers, however. When they go slow, it’s usually in the middle of a song that started fast. No matter how many times I hear the darkly exuberant “Seven Trumpets” from their latest album Lines Redacted, I’m still taken aback when the rollicking rhythm of its verses gives way to nearly twenty seconds of meandering up and down a jazz scale. 

My favourite song on the album, closing track “Lines Discontinued”, extends the principle for over seven minutes, alternating between instrumental passages that seem to be headed somewhere in a hurry with slack ones that allow lead singer and songwriter Dan Hyndman’s oblique political commentary to come to the fore. 

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to pin down. As lyrics site Genius’s amusing attempts to communicate what he is actually singing demonstrates,  Hyndman’s stretched, sarcastic vocals – clearly a descendent of first-generation punk singers like John Lydon and Richard Hell – actively repudiate clarity.

Instead of linear storytelling, we get a minimal stream of consciousness that is divided between the world it reflects and the feelings stirred up by the act of reflection. Periodically, a phrase that sticks will be hurled out of this not-entirely-semantic maelstrom.

The vocals on “Lines Discontinued” don’t come in until well after a minute. Sounding a little like the button-pushing character Eric Cartman on the animated television show South Park, Hyndman references one of President Donald Trump’s more notorious comments: “It’s a shithole country/That we’re in”.

After nailing the austerity-driven decline that’s permeated UK politics since Thatcher, Hyndman’s narrator follows a fitful train of thought that seems to repurpose the notion of “cancel culture” for a critique of the monarchy.

It’s hard to tell, though, both because some words get slurred – as often happened in Mark E. Smith’s vocals for The Fall – to the point where attempting to establish an authoritative text is fraught with danger. 

This shouldn’t be surprising, given Hyndman’s love for Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, who famously distorted the word “career” on the band’s only real hit until it sounded like a homonym for “Korea”. 

Some find this sort of casual surrealism frustrating. But it provides a welcome rejoinder to the sort of musical activism that takes it for granted that language is simply a transparent medium for the communication of ideas. Hyndman, like Malkmus and his hero Mark E. Smith, clearly regards language itself as a political problem.

It’s no accident that Mush’s first big splash was the song “Alternative Facts”, which took Trump surrogate Kelly Anne Conway’s Orwellian redefinition of deliberate deception as the occasion for a sprawling mediation on the absurdity of life in an era when the writing of history is in a perpetual struggle with attempts to unwrite it. 

Precisely because Hyndman doesn’t make it clear exactly what he means by “discontinue the line”, that line can serve a variety of purposes. A reference to Nigel Farage’s Brexit bus suggests that he also has the UK’s disconnection from Europe in mind. 

But his invocation of Farage’s cancel culture implies that a much broader interpretation is also at play, namely that we live in a time when the lines of descent that structure our world, determining who does and doesn’t have privilege, are in the narrator’s bulls-eye. 

Maybe that’s why the band’s music refuses to follow lines to their logical conclusion. Instead of sustaining a groove, Hyndman and his bandmates seem like they’re trying to find their way out of it. While this preference for discontinuity may seem needlessly contrary, it reinforces the impression that Mush does not want to meet expectations, so much as deconstruct them.

So does Lines Redacted’s superficially curious drift towards American music. While Malkmus is the most obvious touchstone, an astute listener will discern links to plenty of other bands from what now, in retrospect, feels like a Golden Age for traditional rock aesthetics: Sonic Youth, Superchunk, Slint, and even the artier permutations of grunge. 

I’m not complaining. Despite my far-ranging taste, this is the music most personal to me, the sound of my overeducated and underpaid Generation X. It’s a little weird, though, to hear it come through so strongly in music that my mind stubbornly wants to classify differently. 

Even as the conservative fantasists who pushed for Brexit were conjuring fantasies of the United Kingdom going it alone, they were ensuring that it would be bound more closely to the flailing behemoth across the Atlantic. Turning their back on Europe meant turning it towards the United States, with fewer prospects for meaningful autonomy. 

While Mush’s love for alternative American rock from the end of the Cold War is undeniably sincere, paying tribute to it within the context of lyrics that mock both Donald Trump and his libertarian British counterparts is rhetorically complicated. 

I’m sure that’s the way Mush want it. Because at a time when progressives and reactionaries are both clamouring for easy solutions, perhaps the most important task for art is to pose questions that resist them. 

 

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