The early decades of the 19th century, known in the UK as the Edwardian Era, were years of great industrial innovation. The proliferation of rail and assembly lines allowed corporations to grow to enormous and newly lucrative size, and the laying of the transatlantic cable allowed America and Europe to communicate with an efficiency that previous generations would have found incredible. As businessmen grew increasingly wealthy, the divisions between social classes became even more pronounced and even more rigid.
It is, obviously, an ideal setting for a Mekons album. The veteran country/punk outfit is similarly transatlantic: Jon Langford and Sally Timms are both long-time Chicagoans, yet founding member Tom Greenhalgh still lives in Wales. Other members hail from New York and London, making them perhaps the most geographically dispersed band around. They may communicate via the internet and the telephone, but the Mekons owe their collaborative camaraderie to the transatlantic cable.
Without trying to imitate the music of the Edwardian Era outright, the band revisit those years in eleven new songs that were written and recorded during a rowdy couple of days in Wales. While the band has certainly multiplied its membership over the years, ballooning to a nearly double-digit roster, Ancient & Modern never sounds crowded. Langford and Greenhalgh remain the primaries, with Timms offering a strong female counterpart, and the rest of the band provide perfectly minimal, albeit surprisingly agile accompaniment that expands the band’s sound beyond its familiar borders. “I Fall Asleep” is a quiet hymn backed mainly by what sounds like an old church piano, which contrasts the sharp electric snarl of “Space in Your Face.” A showcase for Timms’ delicately expressive voice, “Ugly Bethesda” floats along on simple, ambient percussion and a spectral violin. Each song has its own musical personality, yet everything coheres into a fascinating and historically evocative whole.
With innumerable albums and 35 years behind them, the Mekons are old pros at this sort of thing, so the Edwardian setting of Ancient & Modern gives the band some strict parameters within which to works. It’s not a concept album per se, but an album with a concept, one that never succumbs to the kind of academic detachment that terms like “Edwardian” or “transatlantic” might signal. In fact, the band write mostly in character, which lends songs like “Geeshie” and “Arthur’s Angel” not only a wide-eyed specificity but also the urgency of a tense narrative. The people who inhabit “Warm Summer Sun” and “Ugly Besthesda” are facing dire circumstances—hard economic times, strict social and religious mores—that shouldn’t strike 21st-century listeners as unfamiliar.
As the title Ancient & Modern implies, these songs aren’t simply about the past, no matter how fascinating that piece of history may be. The Mekons see a bit of today reflected in these songs, which have implications beyond their setting. It is, ultimately and unsurprisingly, a deeply angry and contentious album, yet one that glories in the act of musical collaboration. It took a World War to bring the first Edwardian Era to a close. The Mekons sound like they’re having a blast pondering what it will take to end this second one.