Essential New Music: The Mekons’ “Exquisite”

The Mekons have been through their share of changes since they first convened in Leeds, England, in the late 1970s. Styles, label affiliations and band members may come and go and come back again, but one thing that’s been true for some time is this: Mekons records are made by getting the Mekons together in a room. There’s a practical side to this, since the band’s membership has spent the last couple decades spread out between California and Central Asia, but it also affirms and ensures the Mekons’ collective nature. 

In recent times, they’ve turned recording into a destination endeavor, making 2015’s Jura on a junket to a damp Scottish island, 2016’s Existentialism in a Brooklyn theater with an audience that doubled as a choir and last year’s Deserted on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. This April, they were scheduled to convene in Valencia, Spain, but COVID-19 put paid to that plan. But rather than calling things off, the Mekons chucked that self-made rule in order to write and record a new album as a sort of email-mediated exquisite corpse, messaging ideas and sounds from one member to the next and releasing it as a download just one week after its completion. 

This pandemic has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, but it has devastated even more livelihoods, and musicians are among the number who’ve been especially hard hit. Many are scrambling to survive by playing online for tips or putting the contents of their tape cupboards and hard drives on Bandcamp. On Exquisite, the Mekons holler back and forth at each other their diverse takes on the economics of 21st-century plague living. One of them sings “order out, order in” over a robot-T.Rex stomp on “West Yorks Ballad,” invoking an experience familiar to anyone who has had the means to enjoy take-out dining over the past three months. The title song, on the other hand, takes things from micro to macro, tracing the webs of commerce and intrigue that have shuttled money, goods and the virus between China and the U.S. through a sonic matrix of folk violin and squelchy electronic bass.

Does it all add up? Of course not, so they sing about that too, admitting on “What I Believe” that “what I believe at night is not what I believe in the morning.” In places, Exquisite sounds as distorted and cluttered as a night spent spelunking in internet rabbit-holes, but the Mekons balance digital distortion with sonic tips of the hat to Tex-Mex rock, spaghetti-Western soundtracks and Black Ark dub. Chaotic and astute, Exquisite is a vivid screenshot of the time in which it’s been made. 

—Bill Meyer