Jon Langford made his legend pouring delicious doses of fear and whiskey, crafting unexpected rock and roll for a major label that never appreciated his genius, becoming the kind of Waco Brother that David Koresh could never appreciate, and looking for ancient honky-tonks in the fairy tales of his own imagination. If myth came with royalties, Jon Langford would be a millionaire.
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Instead, this displaced Mekon is a Renaissance man out of time; 20 years into a career begun by a handful of art-school reactionaries, Langford's still on a minor-league label writing major-league songs, just one more unappreciated legend killing time while he waits for the big paycheck that will never come. You can almost hear the defiance, and the disappointment, in his voice when he sings of the "Trap Door" beneath his feet on Skull Orchard. In that wonderful inflected growl, he tells of "too much music, too many buildings, too many cars, too many lanes"--and of how too many choices have left us with none at all; how everything has become so diluted, all we're left with are muted versions of things that once meant something. "The spice of life ground down to zero," he shrugs in the voice of a man out of work and out of chances. "It feels like Same Street USA/I lost my job, I lost my way/Down the trap door, down the drain."
Skull Orchard is hardly Langford's finest collection of music. Like most Mekons records, it's a roots-rock pastiche, Midwestern music made by a Brit who only recently took up residence in the heartland. Recorded with a few friends, it's a little fiddle, a little ukulele, a little flute, a lotta guitar, and even more heart. The anguish of Fear and Whiskey, the desperation of The Mekons Story, the temper of The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll have subsided, replaced by a mellowed man who breathes melody instead of fire. The recklessness has been reigned in; the anger has been tempered.
Once, a song like "My Own Worst Enemy" would have been hollered over mock anthemic riffs; now, it's an almost poignant spaghetti-western ballad about a man who reinvents himself every morning because he doesn't know who he is anymore. It's certainly autobiographical, but never confessional or sentimental. He may ask whether you see him as "a friend down the years or some bitter old shit," but only because he already knows the answer. And when he sings, "I deserve better," dragging out the last word hopefully, desperately, he isn't asking for pity--maybe just a little understanding.