The Mekons: “Empire of the Senseless”
The Mekons are one of those bands that I’ve never really been able to get a handle on. Maybe that’s because aside from their great 1989 album, The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll, which I do own, I’ve never heard another entire album of theirs. And why I would like that album a lot but not ever explore further has a lot to do with what I’ve read about them: each album seems to vary distinctly in style, and given that I feel like all the directions in rock that they’ve traveled have come together on this album to make one very complete whole, I don’t think that I would like their other albums as much. I’ve always had a feeling that they would dilute what I liked about this album.
Weird, I know, particularly for someone who likes so many different styles of music and appreciates artists who are difficult to pigeonhole. It might have something to do with the fact that apparently the band’s lineup has changed frequently over its long existence. I appreciate stability in a band, knowing that the change in the music is coming from more or less the same set of musical minds, evolving together as a unit. And maybe I just barely like The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll a lot. As though one misstep from what they ended up with, and I would’ve felt completely differently about it, and since this has a reputation as their best album, anything less wouldn’t cut it. I don’t know. But feel free to direct me to one of their other albums that I should definitely hear, and I’ll give it a try.
What I do know is that The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll is indeed an excellent album of rock and post-punk, and “Empire of the Senseless” is my favorite song on the album. It’s a shambling rocker, nearly spoken by leader Jon Langford, with the job of carrying the melody falling squarely on the head of the backup vocals and guitar — but it’s the intensity of those guitars and backing vocals that helps to make the song what it is. But of course it really comes down to those clever, slyly funny lyrics about the downfall of kindness and common sense in society, and the words ring as true now as they did 20+ years ago:
Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing,
Boring Ollie North down in the subway dealing drugs and guns,
Turning little liars into heroes, it’s what they’ve always done,
This song promotes homosexuality
It’s in a pretended family relationship with the others on this record and on the charts and on the jukebox and in the radio
No one’s making any noise now, sshhh, stay quiet,
All unacceptable gropings have been removed from the screen,
Only eyes full of unspeakable thoughts remain,
And even the silent are now guilty in the empire of the senseless.
Taken as a whole, it places the Mekons on a level with the Clash in terms of thought-provoking political discourse in rock. And makes me think I really ought to try a little harder to explore more of their albums…