Obviously I’m not the most impartial reviewer on this one – but I think this is a great record. Ancient & Modern is approximately the 26th record that The Mekons have made (it depends what you’re counting as to whether that’s accurate). It is imaginative and rich work, with the thematic coherence and musical eclecticism of some of their best LPs. For comparison, I’d say that it sits next to Journey to the end of the night, or Curse of the Mekons, and that it holds its own well. Like these earlier LPs, Ancient & Modern is a ‘grower’ – the mood is dark, and the tone is wry. The songs are dense and cleverly-constructed, and given a bit of attention, their wit and melodies will worm their way into your awareness until you don’t feel like listening to very much else. The ambitious title track is a perfect example of this – it gets better with every play.
Interestingly, there are a few lukewarm reviews around, whose authors seem to have been thrown by the ‘Britishness’ of the whole thing. There’s a nice piece of discursive analysis to be done (by someone with more spare time on their hands than me…), examining the reactions that have been provoked by the band’s positioning of themselves and their project on this record. Conceptually, Ancient & Modern draws a historical parallel between the autumns of 1911 and 2011. The sense of impending disaster and anticipated regret is unsettling. For some, the idea that history is not, after all, dead, seems to be even more destabilising. For others, the challenge of seeing history from a British perspective has clearly rendered the record a little too opaque and mysterious. But rock records are not puzzles which can’t be enjoyed without being ‘solved. ’ The historical allusion is there. We can adopt it, or not. The songs will do what they do.
And what they do is more lamenting than lambasting. Apparently, this LP was largely recorded in a rented country cottage, rather than a studio, and even with some raucous additions overdubbed later on, the sense of containment is palpable. This actually works really well. It lends intimacy to the delicate moments in “I Fall Asleep” and “Warm Summer Sun”, but there is also a sense of suppression on songs like” Space in Your Face” or “Honey Bear”, which on other Mekons records might have been allowed to really let rip. The protagonists in these songs look back in time, and see the folly of their youth. A band holding back a little – respecting the sensitivities of the situation – suits that scenario perfectly. The record isn’t perfect – I could do without the unnecessary outro to “I Fall Asleep”, when the song itself has done its job so elegantly. But it is a rewarding and consoling thing of beauty.
Interestingly, decadence isn’t a big part of this record. The slinky, chanson-style of “Geeshie” is the only real musical echo of that (and fans of the Triffids’ flawed classic, The Black Swan may well feel that they’re meeting a long lost friend in its lilting melody). There are a few lyrical teases (‘a glimpse of flesh’), but it’s all very discreet. The Mekons can certainly do decadence, and it is certainly a feature of the period that they’re visiting, so one would have to guess that their restraint is a conscious decision. I think this makes Ancient & Modern feel like one of their more sombre records.
Despite that, the best thing that I’ve ever heard anyone say about them applies to this record, too. In the forthcoming documentary film, Revenge of the Mekons, the novelist Jonathan Franzen says this:
‘If you feel like the inheritor of a very embattled critical stance, while the rest of the world is going over to the dark side, they’re the band for you. And I say that not because they give you hope of ever winning the battle, [but because] they teach you to be gracious and amusing losers.’