“And what’s the point of talking if all your words have been said?”
So snarls the frontman of Shame on the opening track of their 2018 debut, Songs of Praise. It’s a peculiar lyric, all the more so given that it comes from a band that defines itself as post-punk two decades into the twenty-first century.
This is not to say that Shame’s self-categorisation is wholly unjustified. They have, after all, mastered their territory. Last year’s album resuscitates most of the post-punk pantheon, borrowing from Joy Division, Gang of Four and The Fall. Everything from the relentless guitars to the hoarse delivery has been fine-tuned to maintain the illusion that you could be listening to a remastered album from 1980. Yet beyond the admirable craftsmanship, the effort put into perfecting imitation suggests something else. There’s a sadness to it, like watching a professional Elvis impersonator perform in a backwater pub, noticing a faraway look in his eyes and realising that for a moment there, he wasn’t seeing sticky menus on empty tables but a screaming studio audience on The Ed Sullivan Show. Or something like that, anyway.
What it comes down to is the fact that post-punk lacks the plasticity of genres like rock or hip-hop, which freely pool together music that would otherwise be separated by decades. It is, by its very name, less a style than a moment in time. Yes, it encompasses sinister riffs and fractured melodies, but it’s also the death-rattle of a country in the wake of punk, the sound of kids on council estates blasting records with swear-words while the people who made those records slowly overdose in cold city squats. Cultural critic Mark Fisher associates it with “the slow cancellation of the future”; the ageing and gradual forgetting of promises that had been made back when the Sex Pistols were still new and a Conservative government was an improbability. We could go even further – post-punk was never anything more than its earliest articulation, the opening line on Joy Division’s 1979 album Unknown Pleasures: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come, and take me by the hand.”
And if we go with this last definition, it’s clear to see how Shame, a post-punk band far removed from the actual temporality of post-punk, can exist. Many who remember the year 2016 as the beginning of the end-times will share a similar yearning that acts as a succour to their overarching political anxiety. There has always been an expectation that art is at its best when the world burns, and now that expectation is rising in pitch and desperation to become a demand. After all, post-war rationing was countered by rock ‘n’ roll, institutional racism by jazz, Thatcherism by the heirs to punk who quoted Nietzsche over hollow drums. Today, we sit around and wait for our crisis-era culture. It’s an exercise in futility. The conditions that created the old millenarian prophets no longer exist. Or, as Fisher puts it, “Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal… but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.”
There is no guide coming to take us by the hand, and so we get nostalgic. We return to old sounds because we remember how they once made us feel, and we chase them, replicate them, turn them into pastiche if we have to, all in the hope that we might feel the same way again, not realising – or perhaps not wanting to acknowledge – that those sounds were for a different age, that now we will have to learn to cope without a new soundtrack for our new anxieties.
And perhaps we can’t afford to be cynical. So anyway, ‘One Rizla’ is a banger.