Chats at work late last year alerted me to the existence of Yard Act. Did I have any interest in another spoken word (or ‘sprechgesang’) band who satirised modern society in the vein of John Cooper Clarke and The Fall, with Yorkshire sprinkles of Pulp? Yes, yes I did. I was immediately taken with ‘Fixer Upper’ from their Dark Days EP: an acerbic and amusing portrait of a perspectiveless middle-class capitalist called Graham. But in multiplying such vignettes across the length of an album, have they managed to maintain the sharpness of these early standouts?
The answer, as it often is, is both yes and no. In all honesty, the first few listens to The Overload felt a bit like a chore. Singer James Smith has this purposely rambling, overstuffed style of delivery as if he’s just talking at you in the street, and it doesn’t immediately feel musical. Instead, it sounds rather clunky. So the opening avalanche of words in ‘Dead Horse’ and the metaphor about potholes and lettuces on ‘Payday’ initially landed with a thud.
But over time, the accented and relentless word barrage becomes quite charming. ‘Rich’ has comparatively minimal instrumentation to much of the other songs on here and is all the better for it, foregrounding Smith’s deadpan delivery and some neat wordplay. The same can be said about the turn of phrase on ‘Land of the Blind’, a withering comment on modern Britain (“we all get a commemorative fifty pence piece each / for the peace treaties breached / and the palms greased…”). ‘100% Endurance’ very blatantly reaches for Big Emotional Closer in its rallying cry to make the most of life – but hell, it works. And ‘Quarantine The Sticks’ is possibly the most conventional post-punk song here, with its propulsive rhythm and catchy choruses helping to amplify the lyrical criticism of the higher echelons of society. It sounds great.
Which leads us to the main downside to this record. Speak-singing artists get a lot of attention for their clever wordplay, but these words are only as effective as the music that surrounds them. On The Overload, the cleverness is often surrounded with rather pedestrian by-the-numbers indie rock. Songs such as the title track, ‘Dead Horse’ and ‘Witness’ are backed with the kind of uninteresting musical accompaniment that feels a bit ‘noughties indie’ and outstayed its welcome a long time ago. Complementary music makes the words strike with visceral impact – at times I feel as if I may as well read these on a page.
And this is all the more dispiriting when you consider ‘Tall Poppies’, the clear highlight on the record. Stretching out past six minutes when nothing else breaches four, it’s a character study of a life lived in a small town which subverts the typical Yard Act narrative in a touching finale. As the cynicism is twisted back on the narrator and listener, the tempo is slowed, the guitars echo and a wistful saxophone can be heard as the song creeps to a halt. It’s puzzling because it’s way more ambitious and affecting than the record’s other songs, yet it’s the exception rather than the rule here.
The Overload’s collection of short stories, then, are a mixed bag. Some crackle with clever and witty wordplay, yet others land flat with rambling metaphors atop uninspiring music. But in its more considered moments are true, hard-hitting highlights that suggest better things are possible from this rabble further down the line.
Words by Tom Burrows