REVIEW: Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz

Welfare Jazz is a great album title, one that sounds like it could be a lost album by The Fall. It suggests music that will be spiky, confrontational, and intelligent. In a year which is looking increasingly likely to be a continuation of the previous one rather than a fresh start, my hopes were high that this would be just the record to shake me out of my stupor. Sadly, the title is probably the best thing about the album. Which is not to say that it is terrible, just mildly disappointing. The album is an exercise in creative fence-sitting, both musically and lyrically, and that tentativeness results in a set of songs that are perfectly fine but do little to grab the listener’s attention or linger in the memory after they’re gone.

Lyrically, the tracks work their way through a limited set of variations on the same theme. Throughout, Sebastian Murphy adopts the cliched poses of the rock’n’roll life, detailing both his delinquent behaviour and his disdain for a world he feels no part of. On ‘Toad’ he declares himself a “rebel”, on ‘Into the Sun’ an “outlaw”. The extent to which he is celebrating or satirising this position is unclear. Are these figures to be mocked for their pathetic declarations of rebellion, or cheered for their rejection of the mores of a conservative society? The ambivalence of this position appears less a conscious decision on the band’s part and more a reflection of the fact that they aren’t sure themselves.

The penultimate song, ‘To the Country’, seems to offer an answer, with its protagonist desperate for the literal and figurative escape the country will offer him. He sings of an idyllic life there with all the trappings, including chickens, that he will share with his lover. Is this the lens that we are supposed to view the rest of the album through? It makes the vows of outlaw status elsewhere seem even more pathetic, the proclamations of a man child refusing to grow up.

Sadly, this position is undermined by the frankly baffling inclusion of a John Prine cover as the final song. The cover errs on the side of country pastiche rather than sincere tribute, and instantly undermines the suggestion of introspection and regret introduced by the previous song. The overall effect is of an album that doesn’t know what it wants to say. Unlike some albums, this indecision and irresolution isn’t engaging but unsatisfying.

The music is similarly indecisive. Many of the songs lean heavily on the hallmarks of blues rock (like Murphy’s studied bluesman’s howl) to complement their lyrics. The extent to which this is mocking pastiche, creative repurposing, or sincere tribute is unclear. Either way, there is something slightly anodyne about the end result. The borrowing from other genres, ‘Girls and Boys’ draws on disco, ‘Creatures’ on 80s synthpop, doesn’t help. The band sounds less like restless creative visionaries and more like dilettantes who haven’t fully fleshed out their vision. At points I was even reminded of the Electric Six album that I bought as an impressionable teenager. This unwillingness to commit leaves the listener constantly considering the possibility that the record is all just a bit of a joke. This isn’t helped by the lyrical content of some of the songs – particularly ‘Canine Secret Agent’, which is exactly as silly as it sounds and not nearly funny or catchy enough to redeem itself.

I suspect Viagra Boys are a great live act, and perhaps part of their spark is lost in the transition to record. Either way, the indecision and inability to commit to a lyrical or musical path has resulted in an album that just isn’t that exciting. It’s a perfectly fine listen, but there’s nothing to draw you back in for a repeat.

Words by Will Collins

 

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