ALBUM REVIEW: Viagra Boys- Welfare Jazz

Anthony loves this band

Viagra Boys - Welfare Jazz (YEAR000, 2021)
 

Preface: I love this band. Just over two years ago, Stockholm’s finest hit the ground running with the release of Street Worms, a steamroller of a debut, setting them into the post-punk resurgence bracket. But there’s a question of whether they’re really at home there, as they feel like a different class of band to both the host of contemporaries in the revival scene and the Televisions and Wires of 70s folklore. Viagra Boys find themselves excluded from the modern-day “guitar music” tagline too, with a preference for saxophone solos over lead guitar licks.


Still, Street Worms was undeniably fresh, immediately establishing them as a force to be reckoned with. There may not have been much jaw-dropping technicality, or a fiery political manifesto woven into the lyrics, but there’s an eccentric ringleader oozing wry machismo in Sebastian Murphy, countless room-shaking bass riffs from Henrik Höckert, and a rhythmically tight band with an irresistibly massive sound. The formula is relentless intensity and energy holding aloft Murphy’s hilariously outrageous, sometimes depraved ramblings, and it's a formula that works. Street Worms was a juggernaut moving from one banger to the next. Viagra Boys sound great, and their music is so much fun. So how do you follow it up?

Viagra Boys (Marcus Wilen, 2021)
 

Welfare Jazz isn’t Street Worms 2. It’s more spacious and dynamic, but not as obscene or bitter. While it doesn’t grab you by the ears and hurl you into the deep end quite the way its predecessor did, parts of it are owed a much closer listen. The songs here are more distinct, with the band sounding more expansive and Sebastian Murphy sounding more reserved (at times), and while Welfare Jazz partially lacks the raw power some may have expected of it, it’s a determined record and leaves you hungry for more. The targets for a second album are development and keeping people interested, and Viagra Boys succeed on both fronts.


The band periodically venture into uncharted territory, away from the gritty barrage of modern punk their pre-Welfare Jazz material has been, although they open on familiar terms. The boisterous ‘Ain’t Nice’ and its bullish follow-up ‘Toad’ detail Murphy’s rebellious nonconformity and an examination of his worst character traits, ultimately setting into motion an autobiographical tale of his failure to juggle a relationship with “being an asshole”. But Viagra Boys are soon as gentle as they can be with ‘Into The Sun’, a moment of contemplation for a gambling, drinking protagonist suffering the cruelty of self-inflicted heartbreak. (Hang on a minute… is this a concept album?)


Strolling into the synth-driven second single ‘Creatures’, Murphy sings rather than slurs about the grave reality of addiction over an instrumental with the essence of an 80s pop number. The first half of this album packs a real emotional punch as we follow our narrator, a lovable reprobate, on his downward spiral, its resonance only held back by Viagra Boys being known piss-takers of the highest order. Nonetheless, the tone is set for more reflection, more diversity, and more to think about in this edition of Viagra Boys music than what we have seen from them up to now.


As much as it was exciting, after all the solemnness and inventive introspection I was thirsty for a quick dip back in the pool of the riotous anarchy of their debut. Along came foot-stomping instrumental jam ‘6 Shooter’, which I welcomed with open arms. Sitting at the halfway point in the track list and playing a similar role to its Street Worms cousin ‘Shrimp Shack’, ‘6 Shooter’ is some of the dirty slimy jazz-punk nobody can do better than Viagra Boys. It’s unusual for instrumentals to be highlights, especially on a record like this from a band like this, but when Viagra Boys are left to play, they really play, allowing themselves a lot of breathing space. Some of their best musical moments so far are owed to the tightness of the band during their restless sprawling jams, and hold up alongside the playfully outlandish cynicism for which Murphy’s quips are so famous.


The album continues along this path, with its foot in both camps. The bouncy barroom blues of sobriety anthem ‘I Feel Alive’ is succeeded by disco-punk floor-filler ‘Girls & Boys', one of the album’s best tracks, a great call-and-response song begging to be played live to a manic adoring crowd, featuring a fun danceable groove and Murphy blubbering like a fish. It also references his love of dogs, something which suffuses the brief ‘Secret Canine Agent’ - only Viagra Boys’ second song about animals spying on secret meetings - as well as ‘This Old Dog’ and ‘Best In Show II’, the second and third of the album’s interludes (the first is a half-minute saxophone piece). The former seems to be the preamble of ‘Into The Sun’, the latter a companion to ‘Best In Show’ from Viagra Boys’ debut, but both appear to be big-picture moments of metaphorical significance.


The album closes with two homages to country music, an influence which the band had previously indulged with subtlety outside of a Rodney Crowell cover, a hidden gem in their back catalogue. Penultimate track ‘To The Country’ is an ode to romance and the American Dream, on which Murphy adopts a country-style croon and vows to adopt a simpler, peaceful life, a theme which looks to be resolved on ‘In Spite of Ourselves’, the album’s light-hearted finale. Amy Taylor, of Amyl And The Sniffers fame, makes an appearance on this John Prine cover and does an excellent job: she and Murphy bounce off each other brilliantly and the illusion of a curious but happy relationship is never shattered. In a flash, the most improbable redemption arc in music is concluded - our protagonist’s devious past is behind him as he settles into a new life, although he still “drinks his beer like it’s oxygen”. (Wait a minute… this is a concept album!)

Viagra Boys (Marcus Wilen, 2021)
 

Viagra Boys’ grand introduction was a ferocious blast of fire and slime. Street Worms was full-throttle, unflinching, dirty punk. Unlike Welfare Jazz, it writhed and jolted without rest, but their sophomore effort still retains its momentum, never straying too far from Viagra Boys’ hallmarks even in its friendliest moments. Perhaps more significantly, where two and a half years ago he would lay into cheating husbands and hardcore sports fans, Murphy now points the finger at himself: acknowledging his flaws then wallowing in them on the first half of the record, only to reconcile them and curtail a descent into misery and despair as the album progresses. They’re more complex and intriguing themes than the band have tackled before which would clash with the provocative backdrop of Street Worms.


Quirky but well-rounded, Welfare Jazz broadens the band’s horizons, with more overt country and jazz thrown in, and sees the band cross borders with their sound rather than their raucous humour. The moments of seriousness and sincerity complement the moments of silliness and absurdity rather than replace them. It’s an exciting step and an engaging 40 minutes, and leaves open a number of doors for Viagra Boys’ third. A complete country reinvention over an album of ranch hand singalongs? Or indulgence of vices in an exceedingly filthy return to deviance and degeneracy? Whichever direction they choose, it’s the solid foundations of expansion on Welfare Jazz which will have made it possible. Still Stockholm’s finest, they haven’t disappointed us yet.

 

- 8.4 -

very good


highlights:

'6 Shooter, 'Girls & Boys', 'Ain't Nice'

 

Anthony Ford is a Maths student, spending every Saturday watching Burnley attempt to avoid relegation. He calms himself down by listening to music, playing guitar, or shouting at people on the TV.


This article was edited by Fin Cousins, a postgrad literature student studying at Kings College, London. He loves sport, music and writing and he is still waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.


Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.


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