Title: Welfare Jazz
Artist: Viagra Boys
Released: 8 January 2021
"You can have me if you want me
All I need is a little shrimp money
I need to pay for all the shit in my closet
I need a place to put all my electronics"
Despite what its name suggests, Viagra Boys’ sophomore studio album “Welfare Jazz”, is surprisingly difficult to lump into any specific genre. For the sake of characterization, I, and most other reviewers, have labelled them as a post-punk band, but by the time “Welfare Jazz” finishes, it’s somehow difficult to describe what exactly just happened. The album jumps quite nonchalantly between different shades of rock, dance music, and even country, which unsurprisingly results in a mess of gargantuan proportions. However, it’s this immense ridiculousness of the album that is its biggest selling point. It’s incredibly fun, and while the mention of genre-hopping could make many people roll their eyes, the record is less gimmicky than this might suggest. It never feels as though it’s putting on an act by stretching for different sounds, and on top of this, it’s actually surprisingly cohesive. My usage of the word “mess” is less in relation to the structural coherence of the album, and more in reference to the sheer chaotic energy that it exudes. From the Tom-Waits-esque vocals, to the absolutely unhinged saxophone performances that appear throughout, the album sounds totally barbaric.
You need listen no further than the opening track, ‘Ain’t Nice’, to hear the filth and grime that engulfs “Welfare Jazz”. The music feels sweaty and gross, and Sebastian Murphy’s sleazy, growling vocals instantly evoke smells of bourbon-stained breath, amongst various other repulsive odours. While the guitar and drum parts are fairly simple, they’re still extremely imposing and aggressive, adding to the sense of discomfort that Murphy sends shivering through the song. And by the time the honking saxophone is implemented towards the end of the track, it sounds as though the poor thing is being abused. Despite how this may sound, the music is actually put together extremely well. The band are classically trained jazz musicians, so they know what they’re doing. And this shows, with some great compositional songwriting and instrumentation; here, and throughout the entirety of the record. This is more evident in the interlude that follows this track, ‘Cold Play’, which is a more conventional saxophone solo that leads into the next song, ‘Toad’.
‘Toad’, while carrying the same stylistic elements from the first track, shifts the record towards an outlaw-western soundscape, with Murphy sporting a deep, masculine cowboy accent. It all feels very tongue-and-cheek, with the lyrics even sounding as though they’re parodying the ‘lone-ranger’ character-trope that the song utilizes. It’s a fun track, and ends with another interlude that transitions into the next song. However, while there isn’t anything wrong with the interlude, it doesn’t really service the album in any way. In fact, it simply feels like a redundant speedbump in an album that really needs momentum more than anything to help it thrive. There’s only one more throughout the rest of the track list, but they both feel as though they weigh the album down by disrupting its flow.
"Cause I been living on the outskirts of society my whole life
And I ain't never gonna be like all the stupid things that you like
Never gonna like them, ma'am
Yeah, I don't need no woman
Need no, need no man
To tell me what I can't do or what I can"
‘Into the Sun’ slows things down a bit, with a lethargic, plodding instrumental that embodies the intense feeling of heatstroke. It’s sluggish and tepid, with raspy vocals from Murphy that immediately illicit sensations of marinating in 45-degree heat. It’s one of the sweatiest sounding songs I’ve heard in a while, and the band does a great job of creating such a vivid sound. And this vibe is continued throughout the next track, ‘Creatures’, as the band begins to shift once again into new territory, with synths and drum machines. It’s slightly more upbeat, but feels like a continuation of ‘Into the Sun’, and includes some of the catchiest material on the entire album.
From here, “Welfare Jazz” continues with the instrumental track ‘6 Shooter’. But although including a few samples in the middle, and sounding excellent production-wise, the song really feels as though it’s missing the vocal eccentricity that has made the album enjoyable up until this point. Without Murphy’s unique and strange vocalisations, the track feels a bit hollow. And while the saxophone makes an extremely welcome comeback towards the end, with an absolutely deranged solo, it still can’t keep the song from feeling a little one-note. It doesn’t help that the track is followed immediately by another pointless interlude, and subsequently with the weakest song on the album, ‘Secret Canine Agent’ which is pretty uneventful, despite including some more interesting saxophone work.
Thankfully, however, “Welfare Jazz” finds its footing again with ‘I Feel Alive’, with Murphy sounding more like Tom Waits than ever, accompanied by a trudging piano instrumental that sounds taken straight from LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Somebody’s Calling me’. It includes a great bridge with some interplay between piano and flute, as well as an excellent performance from Murphy which, once again, is the glue that holds the track together.
Taking the synth-based sound from ‘Creatures’, ‘Girls and Boys’ transforms into a twisted dance-punk track, which is instantly catchy, yet slightly unnerving. And while the album hasn’t shied away from jumping between different sounds and styles up until this point, it’s after this song that “Welfare Jazz” takes its biggest left turn, transitioning almost instantly into a country record. ‘To the Country’ begins to add various characteristics and inflections of the genre, and then the album finishes with a full-blown cover of John Prine’s ‘In Spite of Ourselves’. They conclude the album here, making you wonder how the hell to classify it, and once it loops back to the beginning, it’s difficult to say whether or not ‘Ain’t Nice’ is even from the same album. It’s disorienting, but it’s hard not to admire the band for the sheer amount of ground that they cover on the record.
However, this isn’t exactly to say that the album is the peak of experimentation. In fact, one of my major issues with it is the fact that in all its quirkiness and eccentricity, I feel as though it really doesn’t go far enough in exploring any truly strange corners of its music. The album is a chaotic mess as it is, but for some reason it seems as though the direction needed to improve it would have been to somehow clusterfuck it even further. While it’s unique and interesting from a sonic perspective, some of the actual compositions on the album are fairly straightforward, especially from jazz musicians. It definitely feels as though the band are streamlining their sound, to an extent, in order to cater towards accessibility. And this is fine, however I personally would have liked to have heard them really embrace the weirdness of their sound, by adding more complexity to the music itself.
Some of the saxophone solos, which are excellent, begin to enter the realm of absurdism, even sounding vaguely reminiscent of Captain Beefheart at times. And if they had honed-in on this sound even further, to the point of deconstructing the rest of the band’s instruments too, I think it could have created an incredibly bizarre and interesting sound that would have lived up to the name of the album. I might simply be asking for something that the band isn’t really going for, and “Welfare Jazz” is a solid enough album in its own regard, but personally, this is a direction that I feel the album dips its toe into without fully embracing.
“Welfare Jazz” is still a good record, though. While I found it to be slightly underwhelming when it came to experimentation from the band, there’s absolutely more than enough fun to be had here. The imagery that the album evokes is extremely vivid, and Murphy’s unique charisma is dripping from almost every song here. And while it sounds absolutely filthy throughout most of its runtime, there’s something strangely appealing about its weirdness. I think Viagra Boys definitely have the potential to make a genuinely excellent album with their next release, if they double down on their strengths. And although “Welfare Jazz” doesn’t quite capture that potential, they’re still developing their sound, and the foundations are certainly there for them to make something really great in the future.
"Oh, Jesus Christ, I feel alive (Ah)
Oh, just last night, I thought that I was gonna die
And I've been clean now for some time
It's been three hours since the last time I got high"
Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 21/01/21