Go To The Devil And Shake Yourself
This fifth CD by London antifolkers Sergeant Buzfuz is one that leader Joe Murphy has been promising (or threatening) for some time - a concept album consisting entirely of songs about the history of the popes! Those who dislike organised religion should not worry, though - the stance here is iconoclastic throughout and largely concerned with exposing the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. A typical lyric is "Anacletus II liked to rape nuns / His sister was the mother of some of his sons." Some will no doubt assume that Mr Murphy was rapped over the knuckles too much as a child at Catholic school, and that this project is some kind of self-indulgent attempt at revenge. However, as I understand it, it's more a case of the songwriter being inspired by reading about the history of the popes and finding enough juicy stuff in it for, well, a whole album of songs.
The first two songs here have already appeared on previous Buzfuz albums, albeit in slightly different versions, and the record features an enormous amount of words, especially in the first half. Fortunately, just when this threatens to become exhausting, the second half (or "Side 2: The Schism") changes the tone of the album with songs which are less wordy and let in some welcome space, allowing the music to breathe. The band have clearly realised the danger of all this becoming tedious and have worked hard to ensure that a great deal of musical inventiveness and versatility is on display to keep the listener engaged. The second half also moves away from the folkier sound of the earlier songs to achieve a sparser effect with more emphasis on electric guitar and bass - a fondness for The Fall making itself felt, for example, on the catchily-titled "Gregory XII vs Benedict XIII".
An impressive array of instruments are heard throughout, including mandolin, violin, cello, hammered dulcimer and the appropriately Gallic accordion on stand-out track "Sur Le Pontiff D'Avignon". The record is also often surprisingly uptempo, notably on the closing title track.
Joe Murphy the songwriter has not made things terribly easy for Joe Murphy the singer on this collection but, although not blessed with a pretty voice or vast vocal range, I think he acquits himself very well here - his voice has character, authority and enough tunefulness to see you through.
The subject matter may be sure to get a few eyes rolling heavenwards but, personally, I find it refreshing to hear a songwriter pushing the envelope in this way as, although there's nothing wrong with songs about girls and cars, there are quite a few of them already, and there has, when you think about it, been a notable lack of songs about popes until now. All in all, an impressive achievement all round - great cover painting by Brian Mackenzie too.