Los Campesinos! write about smart people doing terribly irrational things – using a depressant like aLC!ohol to beat depression, burning the skin off your hands before seeing a palmist, “taking props from ‘90s boy band fashions,” investing your emotional well-being in a far-flung football team. Everyone involved should know better and yet they keep doing whatever it is to wrest something out of life. Which is to say that Welsh band writes love songs; ones that take place in the logical blind spots where people find out what truly matters and how far they’re willing to go to make these things real. Passion is real, romance is boring. And Los Campesinos! write what they know on Sick Scenes: it owes its existence to LC! deciding whether or not to dedicate their energy to one of the most irrational past times someone in their 30s can pursue: being in a rock band.
2013’s No Blues was Los Campesinos!’ finest hour (give or take twenty minutes), but one in many ways happening at the wrong place at the wrong time. To explain: They played approximately 11 gigs a year since the record hit iTunes and what.cd. They made a t-shirt with deposed Prime Minister David Cameron tonguing a decapitated pig’s head and raised over £15,000 for charity. They made a Christmas EP. Tom Campesinos! toured as guitarist for Perfume Genius behind his brilliant 2014 release Too Bright and produced the excellent sophomore record from Australian punks Ceres, Drag it Down on You. Kim and Jason opened their own tattoo shop in Worthing, England. Meanwhile, Gareth Campesinos! continued to commandeer the social media for his local football team and dabbled in straight gigs within the music industry. These are all fantastic ways to spend one’s time and arguably exceedingly poor ways to market an album.
And mind you, this is a band that Gareth and Tom Campesinos! deferentially qualify as being “critically acclaimed, I suppose” and having achieved “zero commercial success” after five albums and several EPs. As is their style, it’s elevated self-deprecation and exaggeration simultaneously: LC!! make dizzying, dense, word-drunk and anthemic sing-alongs about people in low, lonely moments, existing several kilometers from the zeitgeist. At the same time, the band offers asylum for their people that laughed through and endured a trope of cleverly named fad genres that have been banished to digital dustbin of history. In the four years since the masterful No Blues, the revival of various musical trends makes Los Campesinos! seem prescient, elder statesmen almost – if there’s a band with a wordy, incisive lyricist, a fuck-all attitude and shouted hooks, there’s probably a Los Campesinos! fan behind it.
Or, Los Campesinos! are a cult band, one hardy enough to survive the worst downturn in music history without ever having to genuflect towards the festival circuit or go idiosyncratically, ironically avant. In celebration of their tenth anniversary, Los Campesinos! made a football shirt with “Doomed” emblazoned on the front (in ink red blood, can you imagine?). It’s an irrational piece of merch. They sold over 1,000 of them. “It felt like permission to just keep doing what we want to do,” Gareth says. “I mean, I don’t think there are many bands that could be so self indulgent to manufacture a £40 football shirt for their fictional football team and sell that many.” The proceeds were directly funneled into the recording of Sick Scenes with producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Nada Surf, Blonde Redhead), thus making the record a beautiful act of reciprocation – they made it out of sheer love for Los Campesinos!, knowing the love would be returned in kind.
And so as the abject despair of Hello Sadness found a response in No Blues’ chest-puffing musical confidence and obtuse, imagistic lyricism, Sick Scenes consequently is the warmest, rawest Los Campesinos! record, as well as the most plainspoken. Perhaps plainspoken, but still slurred – “nursed a two-beer buzz four whole weeks because that’s the only way to feel sane,” Gareth sings on “I Broke Up in Amarante.”
Sick Scenes is also a covertly political work – how could music that’s so propelled by the confusion of being alive be anything else? Recorded during Brexit and announced immediately following the election of Donald Trump, Sick Scenes underscores a theme that’s run through LC!!’s entire catalog: you can have all the information in the world immediately in front of you and yet really don’t know jack shit about the people around you. “The Fall of Home” is the most tender LC!! song to date, an acoustic ballad on which a prodigal son comes back and finds himself untethered by the boarded up pubs and impoverished schools: “left your hometown for somewhere new/don’t be surprised now it’s leaving you,” a warning about the expectations and choices that can alienate people from those closest to them.
As the UK voted to secede from the EU, “I was angered by the number of people, friends, acquaintances, strangers, living in big metropolitan cities, bemoaning those from small towns, often their home towns, who they judged as being responsible for the (negative) outcome,” Gareth recalls. “I feel a duty to stay and contribute to the small town I was born in,” and he’s made good on that desire by running the social media and writing the match programme for his local team. “Also, I like it here.”
Taking into account the focus on “home,” the self-sufficiency, the newfound nostalgia in Gareth’s lyrics, and the conveniently timed 10-year anniversary of their breakthrough EP Sticking Fingers into Sockets, well, the easy narrative here is that this is a “return to Los Campesinos!’ roots.” And Los Campesinos! are where they started in 2006 to a certain degree; “That first record is the only truly unselfconscious one you make, where it’s just songs you’ve been playing with your friends,” Tom says. “Whether it’s because we’re self-funding or it just coincides with where we’re at as a band/in life, this is definitely a record written out of the love of being in a band again.” But Los Campesinos! have as much interest in writing “You! Me! Dancing! Again!” as they do using the word “blog-rock” in 2017. Those who’ve stuck around from the beginning will recognize the way Sick Scenes lives in the endless now to a frightening degree, the result of being glued to Twitter and Spotify, a source of life that’s nonetheless killing you slowly. It’s an album where connections get made between FKA Twigs and Jimmy Eat World, the Cure’s lesser-loved albums and Vince Staples, Portuguese football and random Interpol lyrics, endocarditis meds and Stendahl’s syndrome.
But Sick Scenes is a version of Los Campesinos! that couldn’t have existed in 2007 – Gareth describes the central theme of Sick Scenes as that of “being older but perhaps being more clueless than ever before.” On “5 Flucloxacillin,” Gareth rifles through a handful of prescription meds after singing the album’s most important line – “31 and depression’s a young man’s game.” True as that may be, it’s a beautiful, doomed sport that Los Campesinos! can’t leave alone – the game needs them.