Legend says that history is written by the victorious. A less romantic view is that history is just a more passive style of propaganda. For what it’s worth, history is an integral part of our lives and although it might not be the most obvious choice of lyrical inspiration, The Payroll Union have made American history (1800s mostly) the primordial ooze from where their songs evolve.
So, the debut album (they had 2 EPs before) of The Payroll Union, The mule and the elephant, continues their immersion in history, while further developing the Americana Rock sounds from that there harsh EP Your Obedient Servant. Maintaining the harsher, gloomier range of colours the band hinted back then, the 11 tracks from The mule and the elephant are as cheery as an overcast day.
Not that this is a bad thing. It’s neither a backhanded compliment, because, fuck it, why should all songs be happy sounds for Wavy Gravy and pals?
Recorded in the lower recesses of Sheffield‘s own Club 60, the album sounds almost like a live album. There is a certain raw energy residing in the imaginary walls of each song; an incense that’s hard to recreate on albums built like 5000 piece Magnum puzzles. Nothing wrong with taking your time recording, but a blitzkrieg recording approaching the live rawness of this band does nothing but wonders. From the countdown starting ‘The Anxious Seat’ to the “let’s sing one in the porch while drinkin’ moonshine, boys!” feel of ‘The House on the Hill’, this is a good collection of snapshots of a band jamming and creating. But more on that later.
Lyrical work is all about history, taking a real setting with real people and then taking a couple of liberties. Sometimes, learning history pushes you to create this distance with the actors. These songs cut down the distance, humanising each and one of them, so when you have a raw, cruel history about Mormons (‘Out of Missouri’) or an alleged murder case that caused a persecution of Masons (‘Men of Rank’), the long passage of time is shortened, making these seemingly long forgotten tales become as recent as the final score of the Superbowl (Ravens! Ravens! Ravens!)
Heck, some of the themes are so human that you’d assume they are as old as the human race. Infidelity and adultery always have forged countries (and destroyed them) and ‘Peggy’s Tavern’ does tell a story of a scandalous affair that shook a young nation fumbling through an early Democracy. ‘South’ touches a bit on that damning and blessing called The Manifest Destiny, which gave us The Oregon Trail…and The Donner Party. It sounds stark and it gets even more taxing with ‘Mary Lamson’, a song using a dread-inducing guitar riff at the beginning to tell the disastrous story of a man who lost too much in a very short time. You can feel the sadness of a certain Edwin M. Stanton as life slowly obliterates him. ‘Imitation of life’ tells the story of a estranged mother and her daughter, whose last embrace is described as “The pale white skin of your father’s sin pressed up against my shoulder.” Ouch. Fucking ouch.
There are two happy (ish) moments and both are more due to rhythm than lyrical work. ‘Hard times’ is extremely catchy and easy on the feet; you can’t help yourself from swaying and shaking the ol’ bones a bit to this one. ‘The House of the hill’ is quite jaunty too; the mint chocolate to take away the pain. Which pain? Well, there’s this particular track in The mule and the elephant that stands out as a testament to the power of the band and that is ‘Through the trees’. A slow burning track detailing a duel (between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr). You can feel yourself in that early morning duel at Weehawken and the entire feel of the song feels as rich (and fulfilling) as any song from Red House Painters‘ back catalogue.
In the old days, history used to be retold and spread by oral recollections and popular songs. Although the finer details of American history that The Payroll Union seem to quote in their songs might feel like something from a far gone time, the truth is that the themes of depression, revenge, adultery and betrayal are as universal and timeless as music. Pay heed to what the band sing about, because even if it’s not the happiest of affairs (history seldom is), it is a sincerely amazing slice of honest to God rock.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López