Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Behold the Once & Future Me: Sick Scenes by Los Campesinos!

"Not right to call this old age...but it certainly ain't youth!"

The sixth Los Campesinos! album, Sick Scenes, finds the Cardiff-spawned septet trapped between two great galumphing horrors of equal awfulness. Behind them gapes the terrible maw of The Past, a big patchwork monster made of break-ups and missed penalties and old gig posters; before them looms the incomprehensible massiveness of The Future, a colossal giant who towers high above the clouds and promises naught but death. You've got a big ugly mess on one side, an unknowable multitude of potential devastations on the other, and Los Campesinos! in the middle, desperately trying to ignore these two abominations and concentrate on the football.

Both the past and the future cast long, dark shadows over Sick Scenes and its eleven colourful compositions. The album opens with Renato Dall'Ara (2008), a crunchy carousel of a song in which the band concede that they are still, to some extent, "living off 2008" and the hype that surrounded their early releases. Track two, Sad Suppers, keeps the lens fixed on things past with a lyric that might be interpreted as the memoir of a young musician who spent every day on the road and every dinnertime sneaking bites of supermarket sandwiches during soundchecks. Sad Suppers is built upon an insistent, hammering beat - its every crotchet punctuated with a whack of the snare drum - that's strangely evocative of a relentless touring schedule: no time to relax, no space for a sit-down meal, just one stop after another after another after another. Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam.

"You can't eat from spinning plates..."

Other references to the history of Los Campesinos! and of the band's singer/lyricist Gareth Campesinos! abound: A Litany/Heart Swells shares the second half of its title with two previous LC! tracks, while Here's to the Fourth Time! namechecks a song from their last album (The Time Before the Last Time) AND several streets in Cathays, the student-infested area of Cardiff where Gareth used to live.

But the past isn't solely represented here by personal experiences. Sick Scenes was written and recorded around the time of the EU membership referendum that took place here in the UK last summer, and Los Camps seems to recognise that this kingdom's refusal to let go of the past may have been one of the reasons why so many people voted to leave.

The face of Brexit Britain is reflected in three Sick Scenes tracks in particular. First up is A Slow, Slow Death, a sort of doomed love song that personifies the UK as a heartsick young man "preoccupied by nostalgia waves" and banking on "the gambler's fallacy: the more I repeat, I won't be the punchline". Then there's The Fall of Home, the album's most charmingly simple moment, which illustrates the experience of returning to your hometown after an extended absence and finding it unrecognisable - not only because your favourite pubs are boarded up, but because the people who live there have revealed themselves to be completely at odds with your own worldview

"Another family friend fell sick, gave the fascists a thousand ticks..."

Second single 5 Flucloxacillin completes this little state-of-the-nation suite with its bridge about "a peloton of OAPs" yelling at our young narrator and telling him to get out of their way. After the referendum last June, many people noted that age was a pretty good predictor of one's vote: older people mostly voted to leave the EU, while younger people mostly voted to remain. Young Remain voters are now faced with the daunting prospect of living with the consequences of a decision they largely didn't make, and all the while we're being told - quite often by Leave voters who are a fair bit older than us - that the people have spoken, and that we ought to just stop moaning and deal with it. Gareth's lyrics in 5 Flucloxacillin allude to this divide via a rather clever cycling metaphor, and it's ever so slightly cathartic to hear him yell back "shut up your faces, I'm not your domestique!"

(While I'm talking about Sick Scenes' relationship with the past, I ought also to mention the many football references that are strewn across the face of this album like so many plastic bags on a beach. The last winking embers of my interest in football died some years ago, but The Beautiful Game always struck me as a very past-obsessed sport; of course, this is perhaps because I am from England, a country that hasn't won a single soccer tournament since the introduction of colour TV).

So The Past, as heard on Sick Scenes, is basically a group of pushy pensioners on bicycles. But what of that other monstrosity, The Future? Well, if the lyrics of closing track Hung Empty are to believed, The Future is a mass of students forcing you off the pavement and into the bus lane. Gareth Campesinos! is in his thirties now, and he's just as worried about the future as he is beleaguered by the past; 5 Flucloxacillin isn't just about feeling marginalised by old people, it's also about medication and noticing that your ever-present mental health issues are suddenly fighting alongside an array of physical pains. Then there's For Whom the Belly Tolls, which deals with the feeling of watching helplessly as the grim spectre of middle age creeps closer and closer with each new day.

In a recent interview with The 405, Gareth Campesinos! dubbed Sick Scenes his band's "most doomed" album to date. It's a set of songs about feeling stuck between a mocking clusterfuck of a past and a lifeless drought of a future, and trying to make sense of both of these things while living life to the best of your abilities in the meantime. There are no easy answers here, but in the end, Gareth seems to recognise that the world's current inward-looking trajectory - closing ourselves off in a quest for total security - probably isn't going to make anybody feel any less trapped and miserable; as album highlight Got Stendahl's sarcastically posits, "at least when we're encased in concrete, we'll be safe".

Sick Scenes is out now and you can buy it from the Los Campesinos! Bandcamp page.

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