As much as people deservedly loved Art Brut when they first emerged in 2005, no one really thought they could keep going for very long. Some were even shocked the band could stay charming for a full album. After all, Art Brut’s game-changing song was called “Formed a Band,” not “Sustained a Band.” The band was a return to the punk idea of being a bunch of music fans that one day decided, “Why not us?” Yet, with enough brains, they produced arguably this decade’s least offensive ironic masterpiece with Bang Bang Rock ‘N’ Roll. Two albums later, on yet another ingeniously titled album, Art Brut vs. Satan, the band members have done something no one expected: They’ve turned into socially conscious critics of their woebegone generation without losing the charm that made fans love them in the first place.
Art Brut vs. Satan is an Art Bruticized slant on the recession. The third album seems to indicate that as long as the events of society change, Art Brut will be there to comment on them, satirically and, from now on, critically. “Alcoholics Unanimous,” the debut single off Art Brut vs. Satan, is the most “traditional” Art Brut song on the album, in its frantic melodies and talk about “being up all night…making mistakes.” As the album’s opening track, however, it establishes a tone of regret, a sense of “what have I been doing with my life” that dominates the rest of the album. The regret begins from the opening couplet of second track “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes”: “Life is especially hard/ When no one trusts you with a credit card.”
Instead of glorifying simple pleasures, singer Eddie Argos worries if these are just signs of “Peter Pan syndrome.” In “The Passenger.” Argos sings about being lame and taking the bus in a song that shares the name of classic Iggy Pop remorse ballad. In “Demons Out!,” he attacks the increasingly fading dream of rock stardom, and later throws in a passive-aggressive attack on lo-fi elitists (“Cool your warm jets, Brian Eno”) in “Slap Dash for No Cash.” This album happened to be exceptionally well produced by none other Black Francis, in what Argos described as a “punk-as- fuck” two week recording session.
As Jason Gross noted at the end of 2007, the year that brought Art Brut’s mixed-bag second album, It’s a Bit Complicated, and LCD Soundsystem’s magnum opus, Sounds of Silver, “Lately we’re getting bombarded by acts that cover the music scene themselves pretty well in their own tunes.” There’s constant name-checking and rock commentary on Satan, but there’s an important difference between the career arcs of Eddie Argos and James Murphy: When Murphy burst onto the scene, he was a hardened veteran of Generation X, and his breakthrough hit, “Losing My Edge,” was already as extreme as any music-snob social-criticism song he has recorded to date. When Argos and Art Brut started out, they were wistful rock fans on the Gen X/Gen Y border who still thought anything was possible. With the inevitable brutal reality check on Satan, Art Brut’s body of work now follows the rise and fall of youthful ideals better than LCD Soundsystem ever did. Approaching his 30th birthday, Argos is realizing that no song he writes will be “as universal as ‘Happy Birthday,'” so he’s done everything he can to make his sincere voice heard.
The case for Art Brut has been helped by the fact that musically, they’ve grown up remarkably fast. After starting out with nothing more than a few chords and classic punk snottiness, the band has grown into phenomenal instrumentalists, with the richest arrangements and most eclectic sound of any Art Brut album yet. “The Passenger” gets guitarists Ian Catskilkin and Jasper “Jeff” Future closest to Gang of Four territory, and “Twist and Shout,” a song about humming a tune in inappropriate settings, lets the dynamic rhythm section of bassist Freddy Feedback drummer Mikey Breyer show off their essential contributions. In my mind, “Twist and Shout” sees punk form meet punk function better than any track since Minor Threat’s “Out of Step.”
It all comes together—and points to the future—in closer “Mysterious Bruises,” both the longest and scariest Art Brut track yet. With lyrics vaguely alluding to rape, “Mysterious Bruises” contains a freak show of fractured melodies straight out of Hex Enduction Hour. At first, I thought Eddie Argos was going to be the Jonathan Richman of his generation, remembered for a revelatory sarcastic first album, and continuing admirably under the radar thereon. Now, Argos is sounding more like a young Mark E. Smith, going from a great rock smartass to an enduring, haunting voice of consternation of the rock world for every subsequent generation of miscreants. I’ll go ahead and say it: Get behind Art Brut. Beyond the sarcastic exterior, there’s a thinly veiled conscience that few bands dare to explore so adventurously anymore.