The Mekons – Deserted

The Mekons mean business this time. You’ll need to rewind to the mid ’90s and I (Heart) Mekons for the last case of this motley crew extending such an olive branch to those outside their circle of devoted fans. That’s not to say The Mekons have phoned it in the past 20 years – far from it – but the band has often seemed to prioritize its lofty concepts over production details. On Deserted, however, Steve Goulding’s booming drums are immediately inviting and John Langford’s guitar stutters and sparks, delivering visceral thrills amid a clean mix.

Deserted’s opening three-song salvo is as good as any The Mekons have offered. “Lawrence of California” is a chant-along powerhouse that finds the band firing on all cylinders. The gang’s all here, eight strong – Susie Honeyman’s violin figures prominently, as does Rico Bell’s accordion to a lesser extent, both contributing to the uniquely Mekons brew (later on, keyboards and smoky sax make uncharacteristic but effective cameos). “Harar 1883” follows suit, vocalist-among-many Tom Greehalgh spinning a first-person yarn reimagining poet Arthur Rimbaud’s late 19th century move to Ethiopia (“Yes it’s true that I deserted,” he warbles) – subject matter sure to warm the hearts of 2019 radio program directors.

Speaking of which, The Mekons have hardly shortchanged the conceptual side. Traveling to the edge of Joshua Tree National Park to record, they’ve crafted an album pondering the nature of the desert in all its forms – past and present, the American West, Australian Outback, the blood-for-oil Middle East. “There’s a world inside each grain of sand,” Greenhalgh warily declares on the powerful “The Galaxy Explodes,” which rounds out that opening trifecta. The album’s narrative approach carries echoes of Pussy, King of the Pirates, the band’s quixotic 1996 collaboration with the late outsider poet/author Kathy Acker, particularly on the rockist “Mirage.”

Deserted grows spottier after a sand-kicking start, its approachable melodies dispensed less generously. This still leaves room for “Andromeda”’s welcome return to the ambling vibe of Fear and Whiskey/Edge of the World glory days. As a counter to Greenhalgh’s ominous prophesies Sally Timms beautifully if wearily intones, “Come back later/ You should see us after the rain,” on the album’s gentle closer. Given The Mekons’ sporadic release cycle “later” may translate to 2026, but Deserted will do nicely for now.

The Mekons