Released: Out now
For three decades now, Johny Brown has managed to find beauty and poetry in the most unlikely places, beautifully articulating careworn lives in a manner that has few peers. But on this wonderful new album (A Night of Word And Blood Sparked Under Fire And Stars A Petrol Smear The Concrete Tear Fuck Yeah Brutalism Still Dreaming In The Land Of Holy Joy, to give it its full Thee Silver Mt Zion-esque title), even Brown is sounding worn out and worn down as Austerity Britain chips away at what remains of the working class hope and dignity he cherishes. The nation Brown is describing here isn’t a million miles from the squalid, hopeless wastelands of Sleaford Mods.
Take the opening, title track: oddly reminiscent in scope and sound of The Specials’ Ghost Town, the song is a state of the nation summary by a man desperate “to find Utopia once again” in a land of child abuse, hatred and fear, Brown ‘conniving through the land of holy joy, toxins coursing through my veins’. Violent Drunken Strangers speaks of a sordid vicious world, of beatings and loneliness, Brown’s final, desperate “if only I could just go out dancing” eerily reminiscent of Terry Hall’s “does anybody know any jokes?” from the end of the Fun Boy Three’s similarly bleak (The More That I See) The Less I Believe.
The male psyche is examined on Men Who Display A Different Kind Of Pain, where the lives of hard, bitter, broken men are laid bare, where “the only things that make life worth living are the things that kill.” The album is full of characters like indomitable old punk Crass Harry, and even Brown himself appears, questioning his own efforts in the reflective sprechgesang of Discredited Art Form. Everything is passionate and terrible and honest and raw. To pinpoint the occasional lyric as being a little clunky or awkward misses the point: this is frontline poetic reportage from a man calling it as he sees it. As always, it’s Brown’s vision and humanity that shines through even the album’s darkest moments. But Band Of Holy Joy are more than just Brown’s words and voice – the music on this album is tremendous, slipping from tense funk rhythms to perfect, northern soul-inflected indiepop, with brass and string arrangements that are often fantastically at odds with the songs’ subject matter.
Ultimately, it’s second track Isn’t That Just The Life? that is this album’s heart. Musically, it’s up there with the very best the band have recorded – four minutes of pure summer melancholy, a radio hit in a more sensible world, a fluid, bouncy bassline and an indie disco shimmer. But it’s the lyrics that hit hardest as Brown perfectly inhabits the role of “a sensitive girl – but tougher than you.” As he / she reels off a litany of awfulness – suicide mothers, stabbed teenagers – there’s nonetheless a refusal to give in, a determination to keep hoping despite the odds. Near the end of the song is a couplet that not only serves, perhaps, as a summary of Brown’s entire worldview but has also reduced me to tears on public transport on several occasions.
Listen to this album, I implore you, it might have the same effect on you:
“Some nights I break, I admit, I just walk and cry, but I’m going to change this world before I die.”