A lot of the time, I listen to contemporary punk records, and I wonder where the anger’s coming from. I mean, obviously there’s still as much to be angry about as there was in 1977, in terms of inequality and injustice, but sometimes it all feels a bit forced. Much of the best modern punk music is more humorous than it is furious (I’ve been enjoying Bobby Funk a lot recently), and after forty-plus years I’m starting to question whether shouting about Tories and the police over thrashy guitars is that valuable as a form of activism. Of course I’m still generalising, and there is still some brilliant politically committed punk music around (e.g. The Domestics), but for the most part the people making punk music have nothing more to be angry about than the people making folk music.
Then there’s Bob Vylan. When I first listened to the title track from We Live Here (on YouTube—frontman Bobby Vylan’s performance in the video is electrifying) I got chills running up and down my spine. It was a very long time since I heard a punk tune where the emotional impact felt so compelling, so intense, and so earned. The track ended in a crashing silence and I thought ‘fuck yes! That’s what punk is for!’ Bob Vylan are a duo, using more or less equal stylistic parts of punk and grime to represent the experience of being young, black and British, with incisive, mordant intelligence and ruthlessly channeled fury. This is music as activism, two men forging sound into an instrument of revolution, and this record is a weapon.
They describe it as an album, although it’s only nineteen minutes long, and I have to concur—in terms of its depth, its variety, and the totally immersive listening experience it offers. I get to the end of a listen through to We Live Here and I feel like I have as much to digest as I do after all six sides of Sandinista. It has intensity, anger, and political conviction, but it also offers more nuanced interpretations of experience—the constant assault on mental health that comes from living with poverty and violence, the inner lives and voices of those most discriminated against by a society that is in many ways more stressful and more unequal than it was when punk first broke over Britain. The music is perfectly crafted to evoke all points on that affective compass, while the whip-smart, savvy lyrics are delivered with the panache of an actor and the assurance of someone who has lived this experience in detail. Although it’s frequently aggressive, loud and raw, I found it immensely moving—more so than many lyrical, mellifluous and more overtly subtle records. I’ve listened to it over and over again for months, and I’m a long way away from getting tired of it. We Live Here is one of the best new recordings I’ve heard in a long time.