Of all the targets for an anti-establishment post-punk band to aim at, taking the piss out of Songs of Praise is a pretty weak move, right? I mean, it’s hardly calling the Queen a fascist. Plus, if a young rock band thinks they need to point out that they’re really not the kind of thing that’s going to appeal to Grandmas and choir boys through an ironic juxtaposition like this, then that should set some alarm bells ringing. And lo, Songs of Praise is littered with moments that make it clear Shame are more concerned with their image than their substance. They know what good post-, pre-, and prefixless punk bands should do, but don’t have the talent to join their lineage. Far from realising the ideals of punk, Songs of Praise embraces the superficiality, conservatism, and blandness that punk made a funeral pyre of.
The music this young band from South London make is doomy, gloomy post-punk which leaves no doubt they’re good musicians. ‘One Rizla’ has a shimmering lead guitar that reaches for the icy emotion of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and the patient droning of ‘Angie’ is melancholy and viscous, like Yuck on a comedown. The rest of the album pitches for a light-footed post-punk, roaming the space between Bloc Party and Brand New. That said, it’s no better than the recent similar work of Drenge, Eagulls, or Hookworms, to name a few. Their structures always work – impressive for a band of 20 and 21-year-olds – but they offer little diversity in terms of emotion and pacing, and the production is middle-of-the-road, sounding like it would benefit from more scuffing up and more polish.
It’s a different story for Charlie Steen’s lyrics, which rarely work on any level, literal, metaphorical, or imagistic, and seem like poor impressions of other people’s styles rather than his own. They’re often despairingly vague, and distractingly clunky too – how could he be satisfied for the opening line of his band’s debut album to be “I’ll always be here, to hear your words” for instance? The lyric for ‘One Rizla’ is diabolical, with Sheen trying so hard to look cool that it reeks of desperation. He sings “My nails ain’t manicured” as if it’s an effective metaphor for displaying his unpretentiousness, and “You can choose to hate my words, but do I give a fuck?” as if there’s enough substance to his lyrics for anyone to argue over. And of all the times Steen sacrifices coherence for the sake of finding a rhyme on this album, its chorus of “I’m not much to look at, I’m not much to hear, but if you think I love you then you’ve got the wrong idea”, has to be the most egregious. Plus, pro tip – if you realise you’re bad at writing songs, literally the last thing you should do is write a song about that.
But the most cringe-inducingly bizarre moment is the second verse of ‘The Lick’, where Sheen mounts the nearest high horse to rant opaquely about MP3s, NME, and people with basic taste. Not only have MP3s and NME been obsolete for years, Steen delivers his invective with all the poise of someone being thrown out of a bar, adopting the smug tone of a self-righteous sixth-former as he ironically whines for music that’s “relatable, not debatable”, as if that has any meaning. Shame’s heroes The Fall never make much sense lyrically, but Mark E. Smith gives the impression that at least he understands what’s going on, and his coded imagery is compelling. Steen seems more like he knows he needs some lyrics to go with the songs but doesn’t have much to say. Time and again his choruses and bridge motifs are wasted on limp sloganeering that bears no relation to the rest of the lyric.
And sheesh, at times these five white dudes really need to check their privilege. On ‘The Lick’, a weak rip off of The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’, Steen seems to think there’s something inherently amusing or perhaps weird, about visiting the “Gy-no-cologist”, at the start of a farcically bad attempt to be surreal that culminates in him letting us know he doesn’t think much of how it smells of silicon. On ‘Donk’ he is seriously, obliviously disrespectful about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement: “I had a dream, just like Mr King, you were there too, dressed only in blue”. And on ‘Gold Hole’ he tells us about a woman upon whom a married man lavishes “diamonds and pearls”, and “Louis Vuitton”, in exchange for the occasional hand-job. The clichés are almost as painful as how they moralise about the woman’s supposed greed.
Of course, it could be much worse – and Steen’s lyrics could be worse too. Yet the most disappointing aspect of the lyrics isn’t their plain averageness, it’s the fact that Shame promise so much more. The imagery of punk should be incendiary, but they are bland. They bill themselves as a political band (they released the Theresa May-baiting single ‘Visa Vulture’ last year) but say nothing of political weight here whatsoever. Their anger is palpable, but incoherent and undirected – maybe that’s stimulating for some, but far from enough if you position yourselves as a band which does much more than quicken the pulse. Plus, Steen’s attempts to ape other people, like Fat White Family’s freakish tastelessness on ‘Gold Hole’, is so transparent, and his failures to hit the target on ‘One Rizla’ and ‘The Lick’ so poor, that he loses all authority as a narrator worth listening to.
What these mistakes confirm is that Shame’s public image is contrived: they claim to hate lad rock but still snigger about naming songs like ‘Gold Hole’ after vaginas, and are more than vaguely chauvinistic. They castigate an unknown antagonist for racism on ‘Tasteless’ but then pay Dr Martin Luther King disrespect on the very next song. They talk about saluting a “sweet disorder” on ‘The Lick’ but the only establishment symbol which earns their disdain is Songs of Praise. Sure, they know the tropes of post-punk: being weird, being angry, being edgy, but they lack the detail to convince that they really are those things, embodying them so shallowly that it belies their inauthenticity. Shame espouse principles with which their only engagement is only superficial – that’s the antithesis of punk. Shame indeed. Skip this and listen to the source material.