The sweaty Stockholmers explore the junk-strewn depths of human nature on a deceptively thoughtful second album...

“We are the creatures down at the bottom” howls singer Sebastian Murphy midway through the latest filth-encrusted offering from Viagra Boys, a band who do indeed, on occasion, appear more horseshoe crab than human. Much like their 2018 debut ‘Street Worms’, ‘Welfare Jazz’ concerns itself with the internal lives of the scuzziest dregs of humanity: no-good drifters who lug their vintage calculator collections from couch to couch, self-deceiving junkies who regale hallucinatory conversations they have with their dogs with the listener, alcoholics who scream and ramble on about their problems and other assorted bottom feeders.

Musically the band still sound like a gang of maladjusted street punks carrying out a hostile takeover of the local jazz bar. There’s an exaggerated machismo to every level of their sound, from Oskar Carls’ bugged-out saxophone howls all the way down the low-swinging basslines with which Henrik Höckert anchors each song. It’s a loucheness that brings to mind the unbridled sexuality of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ Grinderman project, albeit even greasier and more unkempt, and with less of a penchant for wearing underwear.

There are also odd echoes of bass-driven 00s dance-punk acts such as LCD Soundsystem and Yeasayer that bounce across much of the album, particularly on the bubbly ‘Creatures’ and the pulsating ‘Girls & Boys’. Hell, ‘6 Shooter’ sounds like Public Service Broadcasting sampling themselves doing crimes. The most surprising addition to their arsenal of sounds, however, is the weird dash of Americana that underpins the less anxious rear end of the album: the saloon-kicking stomp of ‘I Feel Alive’, the open-skied yearning of ‘To The Country’, and, most confusingly, the John Prine duet with Amy from Amyl & the Sniffers that closes the record.

This broader musical palette offers a more textured background than its predecessor, allowing Sebastian Murphy’s evolving lyrical style to flourish. While the band were never as sneery or judgemental as a band like IDLES in holding up their black mirror on ‘Street Worms’, that record was still a largely parodic demonstration of the fragility of male ego. On ‘Jazz Welfare’ Murphy delves far deeper under the skin of his larger than life characters, extracting empathy for them no matter how ridiculous or self-made the predicament they find themselves in.

The album can, in fact, be treated as a concept album about the capacity for change that lies at the heart of even the most hard-boiled and unsympathetic of men, the kind we meet straight away on ‘Ain’t Nice’ and ‘Toad’. When ‘Into The Sun’ introduces us to a similar figure having a Damascene moment in which he realises the damage he has caused, we realise that we are, in fact, following a single flawed protagonist: an aging huckster who loves nothing but his dog, his drugs and himself. Travelling with this self-sabotaging antihero though his highs and lows, his relapses and revelations, as he rises above his basest impulses to pursue love and a life of peace is a hell of a journey in itself.

Ending the album on the aforementioned ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’, however, is a stroke of genius. Is this wonky, tripped out take on John Pine’s misfit romance a genuine happy ending for our protagonist? Or is it just a drugged-out dream? On each relisten it’s possible to read it differently, like a filthy, empty bottle-strewn version of Inception set wholly in a trailer park. Much like the main character of ‘Welfare Jazz’, Viagra Boys have a deep well of emotional intelligence hidden underneath their aggressively ignorant façade.

8/10

Words: Josh Gray

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