It's kind of appalling how many good albums Jon Langford can put out in the space of a few years. He's a Mekon, a key figure behind alt.country favorites the Waco Brothers, and one-fourth of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Now he's come out with the hyper-literate The Mayors of the Moon, a collaboration with Canadian twangsters the Sadies.
It's not right. No veteran of the punk era should retain so many brain cells in such good working order. And not to get all Poindexter about it, but it's also one of the year's best antiwar albums in disguise. Who knew?
Fortunately, Langford is too skilled to sacrifice artistic quality in pursuit of polemic. While Mayors is as witty, articulate, and edgy as his best work, it's also bolstered by the Sadies' high-energy, three-way surf-garage-country punch. This is no lecture you'll have to force yourself to sit through. The twang represents, as do some straight garage-rock rave-ups and honky-tonk stompers. And the song "Shipwreck" takes on a humid, dreamy quality reminiscent of fellow Mekon Sally Timms' exquisite 1999 release Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos (Timms provides guest vocals on "Shipwreck").
But the meat and potatoes of the album are the lyrically despondent, musically uplifting tracks. The music nearly disguises the words of a songwriter looking at the world with both eyes open. Check out these lines from "Drugstore": "Looks like that big clown's got a gun/he walked right back into the room/he's the master of the world/and we've been living on the moon." It's practically inevitable that the "big clown" brings at least one (if not several) public figures to mind. But what about the sad sense that people were living on the moon while political events took a sinister turn?
In case you think that reading is a stretch, Langford's lyrical obtuseness doesn't last. By the time we hit songs like "American Pageant," any pretense has worn off. "I am fodder for the cause," Langford sings, "I hang banners on the engines as they move off to the wars." The pointless violence and WWI imagery in "What Makes Johnny Run?" could be an answer to a Wilfred Owen poem. People are bred for slaughter and sent off to die: What keeps them lining up to go? It's a great question that's still worth asking.
Of course, Langford delivers his requisite comical/dreary takes on stardom. The title alone of "Looking Good for Radio" should intrigue you, if not its desultory hipster-bashing. And the final track "Are You an Entertainer?" features this humdinger: "Yeah, I'm a real performer/I'll swallow the rum and blow coke up your bum." That's possibly one of the best lyrics of the year, and it's a signature Langfordism: telling the truth with a healthy -- and necessary -- dose of humor.