Yard Act: The Overload Album Review
Comparisons abound for Yard Act’s Brexit-era post-punk. It’s hard to resist all those bands channeling post-punk history to convey the tension of a fractured Britain while making loud political music safe enough for Edgar Wright and FIFA soundtracks. But how many of these groups met Cillian Murphy on the set of Peaky Blinders years before releasing their first album? In a crowded field, the Leeds supergroup of Glamorous post-war girls‘ James Smith, Menace Beach’s Ryan Needham, Sam Shjipstone and Jay Russell just feel a bit sleeker and more fashionable than the competition. Their Coachella-safe, smart, edgy and decidedly British take on The Fall has the humor, polish and character-driven storytelling of classic Britpop. What they would really like is for you to compare them to Pulp.
It is not unjustified. On the strength of 2021 dark days EP—which, a year later, sounds like a concept album to “Remember when Johnny Marr was in Modest Mouse?”—Yard Act signed to Island, the same label that released Pulp’s debut album. Elton John became a fan. So did the famous post-punk scholar Ed Sheeran. Spot rising appearances in NME and DIY, on the BBC and Jools Holland. Smith, a frontman who appreciates a good narrative, seems to encourage Britpop comparisons in interviews just so he can laugh it off (and shout Orange Juice and Postcard Records instead). How you think he shares the same last name as Mark E. Smith—funny coincidence, insufferable media bait, shrug—will probably tell you how much you’ll appreciate what Yard Act sells.
But in 37 lean minutes, Overload earns its hype. This is a confident debut LP from a young band seizing their moment and cutting through the tension with a chuckle. They are clearly aiming for something big. Ambition doesn’t always work, and attempting to manifest a Yard Act extended universe yields mixed results. But it’s easy to encourage a group whose failure to write a new “Ordinary people“land closer to”Fun darts.”
dark days had Smith rushing to spit all his words as the band flexed their post-punk chops and Leeds-specific sense of rhythm and groove (see contemporaries like Galaxians and big sweet). Overload is still, indeed, nervous and angular. But now Smith (who is credited with 50% of the songwriting, alongside Needham and Shjipstone) and producer Ali Chant (PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius, Alger) are turning down the band’s fury to make room for Smith to perform a classic post-punk archetype: the despondent, overcoat-wearing Slogan who mocks his peers and uses privilege to attack privilege. He’s too educated to start a riot, but young enough to support one. What we lose in velocity, we gain in clarity.
Smith has hinted that his outlandish personas recur in different songs, but it’s irrelevant that the insufferable “Could he be a Leaver?” narrator of Dark days’ “Fixer Upper” is the same insufferable narrator from the title track of this album. The fun is in the lines, like when Smith shouts, “If you don’t challenge me on anything, you’ll find that I’m actually very nice. Are you listening? In fact, I’m really, really nice! In “The Incident,” he plays a white-collar con man who says, “I’m determined to expand my divine empire, ethically,” as if ordering a latte. He has a great time on “Rich,” going after the anti-capitalist who walks into a capital and immediately changes the narrative to justify his own advancement. Even when the lyrics don’t work, as in the obvious English “Dead Horse” metaphor, the band tries to make the rant ring irresistible.
Overload‘s best moment might be his most restrained. While IDLES’ typical village song is full of racist idiots, “Tall Poppies” zooms in on a villager: a promising and handsome football captain who, for some obscure reason, never leaves home and trades his athletic gifts for a career in real estate. Then comes a promotion, a mortgage, a marriage, a dog, children and a vacation home on the Costa del Sol. He can still play football next door (he knows he still has it), and hey, his town now has an authentic Italian restaurant. The lyrics convey a happy compromise. The music involves restlessness, increasingly loose and uneasy as the footballer goes through marriage counseling, grandchildren and an increasingly frightening feeling: Is that all what is there ? The whole village comes to his funeral. Smith is then revealed to be the friend of the deceased footballer, considering the life of the deceased as a question: is the goal to live in such a way that after our death, no one speaks ill of us? Is it better to live a small but safe and involved life in our communities, or to live big and in constant awareness of our insignificance? Does it matter?
The success of “Tall Poppies” and the best moments on Overload– is that it’s up to the listener to decide whether these characters are sad bags below their full potential or decent human beings feeling grateful for their little existences. It’s news worthy of Jarvis Cocker, and the nuance and empathy that dares to ask these questions in a post-punk song makes Yard Act the real deal.
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