Beginning with the band's 1977 indictment of punk, the debut single "Never Been in a Riot," the Mekons have looked at every assumption -- about music, culture, politics, identity -- and questioned it, starting with themselves.
Few but the Mekons could turn a lovely country walk in England's picturesque Lake District into a sing-along manifesto on Armageddon. In "Cockermouth," from the band's new album Natural, the venerable post-punk group's Jon Langford slides easily from Wordsworth's daisy-covered downy hills to a J.G. Ballard-esque landscape of "half-formed" hornet larvae and fighter jets flying overhead, all over a soothing, acoustic-reggae rhythm.
Thirty years ago, when the band played alongside likeminded fellow Leeds-based groups such as Gang of Four and Chumbawamba, it was fine to make a lot of noise and watch the crowd bash into one another, as punks will. Now, with some of the eight current band members pushing 50, that seems a bit uncouth -- and, more importantly, disloyal to the Mekons' true selves.
"The Mekons are a great sloppy rock show," says the band's Sally Timms. "That's not going to go away. But I feel like our audience is about the same age as us, and must be wondering, 'Do we have to go back to that same club we've been seeing [the Mekons] at since we were 20?' So we're doing this tour all-acoustic, early shows and not in smoky clubs. Some people will gripe, 'Oh, they've finally gone old' -- yeah, we have gone old, and so have you!"
With Natural, the Mekons finish out what could be seen as a triptych of recordings, starting with 2000's Journey to the End of the Night and 2002's Out of Our Heads, addressing the darkness of the age of terror with an arm stretched out toward something ancient and pagan. On Natural, there's a kind of chaotic acquiescence, as if to say, "The end is nigh, isn't the sky lovely?"
"[Natural] is really going farther back to these ideas about prehistory," says Timms. "Not some kind of comfy 'return to the land,' more like an enforced return -- it's a nostalgic return to older ways of life, but it's also a question: What is natural? How can you relate to nature when we're so removed from it?"
As if to prove the point, the Mekons' typically bizarre method of recording turned even less natural for Natural. After a stint in a rented house in the Lake District, the album's basic tracks were tossed from computer to computer, to band members living in Chicago, California, London and further afield. It's a record label's nightmare, and a shambolic way to operate a large and well-known band -- and it's what keeps the Mekons moving forward, 30 years on.
"Jon pointed out that, for an album called Natural, it was done in a very un-natural manner," says Timms. "I listen to it now, and I think, 'Good God, it actually turned out all right!' No one ever sat down and rehearsed songs -- that has never happened in the Mekons. You can't ever imagine that it's going to work, but I suppose that's our modus operandi. And it does."
The Mekons with Danbert Nobacon. 8 p.m. Sun., Sept. 30. The New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. $15. 412-237-8300 or www.newhazletttheater.org