Band: The Lawrence Arms
Album: Skeleton Coast
Label/ Vertieb: Epitaph/ Indigo
The Lawrence Arms are a lot of things but predictable isn’t one of them. Since forming in Chicago in 1999—the trio of bassist/vocalist Brendan Kelly, guitarist/vocalist Chris McCaughan and drummer Neil Hennessy—have never broken up or become a nostalgia act, choosing instead to make albums that continually challenge the boundaries of their sound. In the process they’ve carved out a distinctive identity in the punk community that’s simultaneously gritty, beautiful, melodic and mutinous. Although it was written and recorded before the Coronavirus upended the world, the band’s seventh full-length Skeleton Coast sounds eerily prescient as it imagines an apocalyptic future where coyotes croon and wolf packs roam free. “For a band who has been around as long as us, this is about as urgent of a record as we could make,” Kelly explains. “It may be kind of dark but it’s really about searching for light in the darkness and finding it, as small as those moments may seem. That’s sort of where we’re at: Collecting the scraps of things that could make for a bearable existence in dark times.”
In order to get outside of their comfort zone, the band and longtime producer Matt Allison traveled to Sonic Ranch Studios, a recording compound surrounded by pecan orchards 30 miles east of El Paso, Texas, to record Skeleton Coast. “It was kind of like album camp in the sense that we were in this very remote setting for two weeks and really focusing on making the record. That was a very different experience for us because we’ve always made our records in Chicago which is home and all the things about home are in the way,” McCaughan, who currently lives in Portland, Oregon, explains. “We were really happy to have Matt with us because he understands our band and our process in a way that’s very unique. We’re a really weird band and he totally gets the eccentric qualities about us.” Like 2014’s Epitaph debut Metropole, Skeleton Coast was written by sending Dropbox demos between the members—and with just two weeks at Sonic Ranch to track the album there wasn’t time for ambiguity and the result is an album that’s layered without veering into overindulgence.
“I feel like this record falls into the category of sounding exactly like The Lawrence Arms in a pretty uncompromising way while still bringing in space-coyote elements,” Kelly explains. From power-chord punk familiarity of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and “Demon” to the blazing bookend of the driving opener “Quiet Storm” and quasi-psychedelic finale “Coyote Crown,” Skeleton Coast contains the elements of the band’s sound that fans have come to love for the past two decades but recontextualizes them in a way that somehow sounds perfectly aligned with this strange time in our collective history. “I thought these songs belonged together in a certain way, like they’re connected, and certainly that’s always a goal for my end,” McCaughan explains of his approach to songwriting. “Obviously our band is based on this tension and friction between the way Brendan writes and the way I write and I feel like that contrast and that friction is probably a bit more on display here than on Metropole,” he adds.
Musically, access to the arsenal of vintage gear at Sonic Ranch allowed the band to sonically stretch out as evidenced by McCaughan’s keyboard-sounding eBow riff on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and soulful soloing on “Demons.” Then there’s “How We Rot,” a song that manages to shift genres and pitches, work in a pirate joke and a reference to the ’70s soft-rock smash “Brandy” by Looking Glass... all in under two minutes. “That song is about classic misdirection and stunted liberal political impulse and impotent rage,” Kelly explains. “From a personal perspective the rage that comes with trying to do the right thing and getting caught up in the morass of rules that come along with doing something properly. And ‘Brandy’ is a lyric about loving something that you can never have, maybe because it’s something within you that makes it impossible to have it. Brandy loves the dude from Looking Glass but he’s like, ‘You’d be a good wife but that’s not my thing, I’m trapped sailing on here.’”
As that anecdote should illustrate, even the most seemingly strange moments on Skeleton Coast are deliberate—and accordingly there are musical and lyrical nods on the album that most of us will never understand. “Brendan’s songs have a more palpable kind of darkness than my contributions to the record and they’re a bit more direct and perhaps aggressive in their point of view in some of those things,” McCaughan explains. “My output was much more abstracted. I think of a lot of the songs on this record as belonging to a series of vignettes or short stories very loosely about some end of the world scenario.” Kelly describes this album as being “more hopeful yet vastly more hopeless” than Metropole. “I don’t know how to synthesize the truth of that but it really is true,” he explains. While it’s difficult to articulate, after listening to the album his statement is easy to understand. For the same reason when McCaughan sings “I wear a coyote crown, I watch the world burn down” over a carefully crafted cacophony of guitar, bass and drums during the album’s final moments, it doesn’t sound like the end.
Maybe what it sounds like is a new beginning.