As someone who has stood in the middle of the Texas desert and gazed up at the night sky, I can appreciate the near-drunken wobbliness with which Tom Greenhalgh sings “How Many Stars.” As the Mekons play a gently swaying, not-quite-reggae rhythm, the vocalist/guitarist/founding member sounds like a man overwhelmed by the brilliance of a clear night sky dotted with billions of points of light, and all he can muster in response is a fumbling, not-quite-rhetorical question: “How many stars are out tonight? How many stars? How many stars?” When the rest of the band abandon their instruments to harmonize with Greenhalgh, it becomes a besotted sing-along, which is another way of saying it’s a Mekons song.
The inspiration, according to the song’s author, was not Texas, but a desert on the other side of the globe: the Australian outback. “I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, where there are no lights on,” Jon Langford recently told the Quietus. “Because it’s the other side of the planet, they don’t have the same constellations. Just the sheer number of stars was extraordinary.” Fittingly titled Deserted, the Mekons’ latest album (and their first studio full-length in eight long years) is inspired by these remote places where civilization cannot easily thrive but humanity and wonder can.
Lately, the band has been fascinated with overarching, often charmingly unwieldy concepts. Their last album, 2011’s Ancient & Modern, compared the world of 100 years ago and the world of today, while 2014’s Jura,featuring alt-country Rasputin Robbie Fulks, was not only recorded on that Scottish island but addresses issues of isolation and the weighty history that comes with the dour weather. Deserted was recorded in Joshua Tree National Park in California, and begins with the raucous, recklessly paced “Lawrence of California,” which barely holds together as the band reimagine T.E. Lawrence organizing an insurgent army somewhere in Death Valley. “Harar 1883” offer a bleary vision of poet Arthur Rimbaud hallucinating in Ethiopia. The glam-stomping “Weimar Vending Machine” even traces a handful of sand that ends up in a baggie sold to none other than Iggy Pop.
Rarely do the Mekons get quite as loose as they do on Deserted, alternating between arid, nocturnal atmosphere that seems to emanate from Susie Honeyman’s fiddle and moments of near hysteria, as though their sun-baked brains have gone haywire. These songs take their time to wander about, even getting lost in the vast expanse — sometimes a little too lost, as on the rambling “Mirage.” But even that song reveals the Mekons’ versatility and imagination. There is an intoxicating beauty to the harshness of the desert, an inspiration to be drawn from the hardiness of the life found there—and that pretty much describes this unkillable band.