I first became aware of The Lawrence Arms after buying the 2002 Warped Tour sampler. It was a double disc affair and a great memento of my first and only Warped Tour experience, but I’ll admit that there wasn’t much about the song “Navigating the Windward Passage” that stuck out to me, other than that the singer’s voice (Brendan Kelly) seemed too raspy and grating for me to really enjoy. I didn’t skip it every time, though, but I mostly forgot about them outside of that tune, and didn’t really give them another listen until they released Oh! Calcutta! in 2006.
At the time, I was enrolled in a Christian university that I didn’t like, in a small town that I left as often as I could, and was struggling to endure the seemingly year-long winter weather that few southern California kids would’ve put up with. It was in this condition that Oh! Calcutta! (hailed by many as the Arms’ best work to date) wormed its way into my ears and my heart, and I worked backwards into their catalogue, also falling in love with Apathy and Exhaustion. The self-loathing and melancholy mixed with punk rock anger, delivered by different and at times dueling vocalists really resonated with me.
Since 2006, the band had released just one other record (2014’s Metropole, their first release on Epitaph) and what was essentially a “greatest hits” compilation (2018’s We Are The Champions of the World), so it wouldn’t have been a stretch to assume that the days of putting out new music under The Lawrence Arms banner had passed. But with Skeleton Coast, the boys from Chicago show that, even with all three members being in their 40s, they’ve still got it.
The singles leading up to Skeleton Coast were “Last Last Words” and “PTA” (which stands for Planes Trains and Automobiles), and are great samplers of what TLA offers. On “Last Last Words”, Chris McCaughan croons mournfully as soothing power chords soar. His lyrics, usually a bit more wistfully poetic than Kelly’s, paint the bittersweet finality of the impression that’s left behind when we leave this world; “Hang me in the halls of obscurity / Behind the velvet ropes / In a distant gallery”.
“PTA”, on the other hand, is a song fronted by Kelly, and opens up with pounding drums and a raucous verbal assault. Like “Last Last Words”, it centers on death, but is approached uh, differently, more nihilistic (“Don’t worry baby it’s nigh / The end of our time / The brush on your thigh / The feeling of toiling and loving / Only to watch it all die”) and carnal (“Dusty and lonesome and craving a glance / That starts in your heart then shoots into your pants”).
McCaughan and Kelly are the yin and yang of The Lawrence Arms, balancing each other out, both in vocal delivery and lyricism. It’s that balance that keeps this and most of their records fresh to my ears, as the songs seem perfectly sequenced to keep your attention from start to finish. Never too romantic, depressing, or angry, they find the sweet spot and lead the journey.
Kelly described the record on the “Road To The Skeleton Coast” podcast (which began earlier in the year and detailed much of Kelly’s discography with The Lawrence Arms, as well as other bands, leading up to and including Skeleton Coast) as a type of concept album about an outpost at the end of the world. Recorded in El Paso, Texas, which is on the edge of the country and essentially on the edge of nowhere, it has a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe to it – as if releasing music during a global pandemic needed to be even more ominous.
Some of my internet music buddies seemed quick to point out that they prefer the “Chris” songs (I have a soft spot for Four One Five Two, the debut LP from McCaughan’s solo vehicle by the name of Sundowner), but something about most of the “Brendan” songs just really appeal to me this time around. “Pigeons and Spies” is probably my favorite song (and will probably end up on my own personal “best of TLA” playlist on Spotify), and has some of the best lyrics. On it, Kelly spits out a handful of oddly specific metaphors involving dinosaurs and pigeons, before proclaiming “I’m tired / And you’re tired too / I want to make big changes but I’m not in the mood”. When they get to the bridge, it’s as triumphant as the Arms are on the record, and it’s about drinking before 9:00.
“Dead Man’s Coat”, “Ghostwriter”, and “Under Paris” (all Chris songs) are also highlights on the record, which clocks in at 35 minutes. Only one of the 14 tracks goes past the three minute mark, so buckle up – the tracks are as unrelenting as the year it was released.
RIYL: anything that Brendan Kelly has done, the Red Scare Industries catalogue, LaGrecia, and Arby’s.
Stream and download Skeleton Coast on Bandcamp.
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This review was written by Marcus Pond.