Owen Fairclough is unnerved by the timing of a post-punk masterpiece.
The greatest bands define their times and places.
The Beatles were pretty much the 1960s.
And Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads created the sound of a once unknown dive bar in lower Manhattan called CBGB in the mid-70s; all of them became icons.
But I cannot think of a band whose timing – for better or worse – so utterly captured a disastrous moment in modern world history.
New York’s The Wants have done it by releasing the unintended soundtrack to the coronavirus pandemic with their debut album.
“Container” dropped on Friday the 13th.
Just a few months ago this would have looked like an astutely scheduled ominous date for a trio who announced a dark worldview about social media-driven isolation and anxiety with early singles such as “Clearly A Crisis” and “The Motor” – and recorded them in an actual shipping container for good measure.
But this was a Friday 13th like no other, as the coronavirus onslaught prompted a beleaguered President Trump to declare a national emergency here in the U.S and followed European countries belatedly enforcing isolation upon their citizens to try to, yes, contain the pandemic.
As panic buyers across the world swept supermarket shelves, Container’s sleeve couldn’t be more prescient: a collection of canned peas and other preserved vegetables – the default apocalypse diet.
And the 12 tracks are a masterpiece, fusing techno and post punk to depict a dehumanizing era in which we’ll go primate to retreat to an “Ape Trap” (“I’ll stay a deviant, or else die of boredom”) and “no one wants to be your friend past 7:30.”
Classic albums demand they’re played in their entirety every time, “Container” all the more so with its brief claustrophobic links like “Machine Room” or “Waiting Room” stitching the whole tapestry together with driving industrial beats, clanks or purrs that give way to standouts like Fear My Society.
This is where frontman Madison Velding-VanDam and bassist Heather Elle (both members of Brooklyn band Bodega, but The Wants are a class apart) display their their chemistry.
His sparse riffs wail against her taut bass lines as they harmonise to perfection on songs that rarely overstep the three minute mark.
On stage in Washington D.C. last month Velding-VanDam was all jerks, angles and grimaces.
It was easy to see the shadow of David Byrne from Talking Heads – whose groundbreaking experiments in poly-rhythms, “Remain in Light”, celebrates its 40th anniversary in October; “Container” would sit comfortably next to it.
But where Byrne drew criticism from his band mates about his own form of social distancing from them and fans, Velding-VanDam exuded a warmth and vulnerability, even if it has its limits: on “Fear My Society” he asks “I’ll tend to my son, tell him to man up, Will she love you if you’re a failure?” before pausing for a beat and adding offhandedly “Huh?”
If the timing of Container’s release was unintentionally perfect in reflecting the pandemic disaster we’re in right now, The Wants and emerging bands all over the world will have to reap the dire economic consequences – right when they and fledgling British label Council Records deserve huge critical and commercial success.
The travel ban must be especially galling given the fanbase The Wants have been cultivating in the UK with their early tours.
But a band whose Doomsday (“I feel the goodness of your Nuclear Party”) is so danceable won’t stay isolated for long.
Until we can re-engage fully with public life, as Velding-VanDam quipped recently: “Eat your peas.”
“Container” by The Wants is out now on Council Records.
Note: Owen paid for his copy of Container and ticket to see The Wants at DC9 on 8 February.