I was having a slow day on August 7 when I saw a Tweet praising the newly released debut from Billy Nomates (Tor Maries). I stuck it on. I trusted the person who had posted the praise, but I am a constant cynic so kept my expectations close to the ground.
It was ‘Hippy Elite’, the second song on the album, that really grabbed my attention on the first listen. Tor Maries launches into an acerbic and hilarious tirade in this song, but when I first heard it I found it a little bit uncomfortable. Here was Maries showing her irritation at people asking her to ‘save the whales’ or ‘ride that eco rocket.’ I could imagine the righteous anger of all those people out there trying to fight for changes such as these. But I wasn’t listening carefully enough. And when I properly got my head around this song, I was persuaded that I was in the presence of a very clever songwriter. This song’s vitriol is not aimed at people who want to make the world better; it is aimed at people who expect you to do all of the things that they do regardless of your lesser budget, your tougher circumstances, your overwhelming job. It’s aimed at the type of liberals who are only liberal when it comes to the two or three things they give a shit about. It’s a brave and interesting move from Maries; taking aim at some of the people who are likely to get behind the message of many of her other songs. You have to admire it.
And the album is full of similar moves. ‘FNP’ (Forgotten Normal People) focuses on a subset of society that has somehow become lost in the narrative; the people sleeping ‘on the floor’ of a room they ‘can’t afford’ ‘for a job’ they ‘just don’t want’ because they were born ‘with a fork not a spoon.’ Maries, here, seems to be questioning how these people are often the subject of conversations, but are rarely the participants. But there is hope here, too: ‘well the burnin world is ours/and I’m on fire/I dance upon your deals/I dig my dirty heels/Cos there’s nothing in this world/that isn’t mine.’ This album was written before lockdown, before the BLM protests, and before the very recent scandal around exam results in the UK. But it was fascinating listening to it with them in mind. Maries calls for Forgotten Normal People to ‘dig their heels’ and reclaim what is theirs – it looks like we are seeing that start to happen more and more.
So far, this review might have made Billy Nomates sound like a very serious album indeed. And it is. In terms of its messages. But what makes it such an accessible and enjoyable album is its caustic humour. ‘Call In Sick’ is another song that you will need to remind yourself was written before lockdown, but it tells a hilarious tale that many of us will be familiar with from some time in our lives. Hating a job that we’ve taken because we have no choice, calling and making excuses to someone called ‘Debbie’, adding layers to the lies as we try to make them stick. ‘Fat White Man’ treads more familiar ground than a lot of the songs here, but Maries uses her own brand of wit to bring down the Bentley owning executive whose expensive car doesn’t cover up the fact that he’s a dickhead. ‘Supermarket Sweep’ uses humour and Maries’ own career history to tell another sad story of a person stuck in a dead-end job, accepting the monotony that seems to be here to stay. It also includes the only guest spot on the album, as Jason from Sleaford Mods comes in to perfectly play the role of the song’s protagonist.
So it’s fair to say that I found this album’s meanings enthralling, but so far I haven’t even mentioned the music. ‘Happy Misery’ is the best example of the spiky, aggressive tone that the songs take. The jagged guitar, the tense and feverish percussion, the driving bass tone. Sonically, it makes you want to move and shout before you’ve even spent time getting to know what she’s singing about. ‘No’ is the song that seems to have garnered the most attention so far and is also the prime illustration of how the music and the message meld together so well. Here, Maries extols her audience to harness the power of the word ‘no’ while ramping up the inspiration with the tight and claustrophobic instrumentation.
To return to that first listen of ‘Hippy Elite’ for a second; that slight feeling of discomfort, that idea that there was a challenge at the heart of the song – that is what is central to Billy Nomates. This isn’t post-punk that panders to its audience. It is music that makes you think, that makes you look at your preconceptions. And it’s music that makes you want to dance and jump around in a crowd of people who feel the same as you do. Fingers crossed for that tour in February.
Words by Fran Slater