So Good it Hurts (Twin/Tone 88114)
I seem to be the only person around who regards this album as the Mekons' best in fact, I seem to be the only person who regards it as even a solidly enjoyable album. That gets into a lot about why I feel that rock critics are principally a bunch of idiots. Every review I've ever read about the Mekons praises their punk rock elements to high heaven and regards "departure" albums like this one as being merely interesting side-trips. But I've been captivated by So Good it Hurts since it came out in 1988, and I've yet to find a Mekons album I like even nearly so much. On this album, I find a coalescence of the band's catchy melodic sense, its twisted way with a lyric, and its musical adventurousness. The straight-ahead punk flavor is tempered by a predominant calypso influence and a folkiness that I don't see in other Mekons albums. It's simple, full of energy, thoroughly tuneful, and completely engaging despite a bit of mid-80s reverb drown. The only way I can describe the sound is something like the Clash in Lagos, Nigeria recording songs by Elvis Costello and Buck Owens. That's a high, high compliment, by the way.
The album opens with the extended instrumental intro of "I'm Not Here (1967)," setting the mood as kind of a Caribbean beach party, and when the lyrics finally arrive they present a zany vision of Hell as a cocktail party ("Oh look, Nixon has arrived/With Hitler as his very special guest"). From there on it pretty much becomes some kind of riot the Sex Pistols crashing a Jimmy Buffett album, perhaps? The songs are very defiant, and political without being self-important a la "Russians" by Sting or "Tramp the Dirt Down" by Elvis Costello (both songs I like, actually). The themes that run through are literary, but not bookish: "Robin Hood" and "Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian" are populist statements from a politically conservative era, defiant cries that challenge the status quo circa 1987. That sort of thing makes critcis "creem" their jeans in reference to albums like London Calling, but So Good it Hurts seems to have eluded those critics. Musically and thematically it's easily the Mekons' most coherent album, and furthermore it's about the best "party album" ever made, although I've yet to find that glorious party where this would be the acceptable soundtrack.
Every track on the record has been my favorite song at one point in time or another, from the haunting "Dora" to the ponderous "Ghosts of American Astronauts," the anthemic "Robin Hood" and "Poxy Lips," the politically charged "Vengeance" and "Maverick," and even the Stones cover "Heart of Stone" (done with supreme success by Sally Timms, who is probably the best female pop vocalist of the past fifteen years). The true gems are "Fantastic Voyage" (a masterpiece of buoyant pop that has more genuine energy and purpose than Neil Young has mustered up since leaving Bing Crosby, Eaglefeather "Stills" Stillwater and Ogden Nash) and "Revenge," which is one of the most bitter and hilarious songs I've ever heard ("Revenge ain't so sweet, but it'll have to do/Revenge is about as sweet as the way I feel about you"). The opening line is one of the best ever penned, and thus deserves separate mention: "Knuckles white with anger, taste of ashes in your mouth/Nothing like a slap right across your face." From there, ANY song would be a masterpiece, much less additional lines like "There's nothing I like better/Than a vicious cold vendetta" and Sally Timms' amazing gruff vocal.
If there's any negative thing to be said at all about the album it's that I've probably listened to it 500 times but I still wouldn't be able to immediately hum a couple of the tracks if you told me the titles. That probably says more about my lack of permanent memory than the album's staying power. I think it all started with my mother freebasing cocaine while pregnant with me, and then my bout with Sudden Infant Alzheimer's couldn't have helped. Fortunately that's all behind me. Wait, what was I talking about? (Laughter, applause, cue credits.)
Review by Jubie Lollawanalana