Retains the basic swamp-fever haze of the band’s late-period work.
It’s been a long time since Black Lips commanded the fear and fascination that they did as upstart young punks with more belligerence than sense. Those chaotic early albums, sounding as if they’d been unearthed from a poorly preserved tape collection, and legendary shows filled with chaos and bodily fluids have given way to the fate that awaits all punks who hang together long enough to age into a kind of statesmanship. Ever since 2014’s turn to Southern rock with Underneath the Rainbow, the band has slowed their roll, opting for twang and the buzzing approximation of humidity and mosquito swarms over pure force. Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart continues this sonic trend, adding a few more acoustic touches but retaining the basic swamp-fever haze of their late-period work.
From the start, the clearest reference point for this material is the output of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Weary, strung-out Americana backs tales of outcasts and losers. Guitars buzz like the curtains being ripped back to let sunlight flood the aftermath of a hotel bender, and drums punch through the center of the mix to give you the feeling of hangover sensitivity. For a band whose albums used to be buried in tape hiss, the production depth here is stunning: stray guitar lines chime and twang around the psych-country wash, and percussion shakes in every nook and cranny to give the group a big band sound.
All of this is put in service toward the usual Black Lips vulgarity and prankishness. Opener “Hooker Jon” is a case of mutual mistaken identity between a man who mistakes a woman for a sex worker, who in turn mistakes him for a john on the prowl. The concept is comical, but it’s the specificity of the storytelling that sells it, including the tidbit that the protagonist “ate four thousand, four hundred and forty-eight/ Flintstones Kids to get my fix.” “Rumbler” concerns a backwoods vigilante cop who works himself into a state over perceived enemies ranging from “tax stamp dodgers, moonshiners and illegal loggers/ Pot-smoking hippies and draft dodgers to boot.” Eventually swatted down by the feds for his activities, the Rumbler has a happy ending when he gets taken in by a local militia. Sympathetic portraits of forgotten people these are not; the Black Lips paint a portrait of the South as a place with dark pockets of vice and unchecked resentments.
The album is most engaging, though, when considering the instrumental acumen brought to bear on the music. The Black Lips, like a lot of punks who stick it out past their initial, undisciplined caterwauling have, through sheer repetition, learned how to play. Compare the credible roots rock of “Chainsaw,” with its bright guitars and catchy stomp, or the explosive pop of “Gentleman” to the borderline childishness of, say, “Bad Kids” to hear a band that may not be virtuosos but now no longer needs to outrun its lack of technical skill.
Still, if the band has a firmer grasp on the fundamentals than ever, they’ve dialed back on the surprise that once made them so vital. The front half, with its grimy story songs and impish humor, is strong, but everything after “Angola Rodeo,” an ode to the prisoner event of the same name, feels both narratively and sonically indistinguishable. “Odelia” and “Dishonest Men” share the same surf-garage stomp, while “Locust” and “Live Fast Die Slow” fall back on the album’s shimmering haze to diminishing returns.
Though the band undeniably knows how to create an atmosphere with their recent sound, there’s a fundamental conservatism to their Southernized approach that clashes with the band’s own, long history of championing some of the most outré of Southern musicians such as Lonnie Holley. As far back as the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, punks were finding the avant-garde in the primitive, and one can’t help but feel mildly disappointed that so much of the album sounds like a puckish take on retro rock. In the past, simplicity was a virtue for the Black Lips. Their songs were so elemental that someone listening to one of their songs for the first time could sing along to it by the second chorus. Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart shows that they still know how to craft a good tune, but increasingly their once-infectious energy has started to sound like stagnation.