It seemed so promising. The King Blues, pseudo-anarchic, rage fuelled poets of the capital, back for good (after once seeming gone forever) with an album to confront the turbulent times we live in – and with North Korea flexing their military might, the Tory government breaking yet more promises and Trump continuing to beggar belief with every new day, the climate for a fresh wave of politico-punk couldn’t be richer.
It turned out somewhat differently though, such is life. The release of the Blues’ sixth effort, ‘The Gospel Truth’ has been clouded by the social media shit-storm surrounding frontman Jonny, ‘Itch’ Fox’s legal troubles, and though it’s easy enough (until anything is proven, anyhow) to isolate the music from the mud-slinging, what’s slightly harder is to accept just how much King Blues seems to have become the Itch show.
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Gospel Truth is undoubtedly a work of catharsis for Fox. And make no mistake, that is a positive thing on some tracks – on the albums lively opening track, he admirably puts his undeniable resilience to song, belting out, ‘I come out swinging, with the heart of a lion’, on what is one of the discs better tracks. On the acoustic, ‘The Truth Comes Out’, a bold attempt at introspection results in bitter wistfulness, prophesizing that, ‘After all the people that I’ve offended, my funeral will be sparsely attended/Street parade with my head on a spike, put my corpse in the stocks if you like’. It’s a highly interesting number lyrically, strongly reminiscent of Marilyn Mansons, ‘Four Rusted Horses’ – but like in Manson’s auto-funereal fantasy, the self-loathing still starts to feel a great deal like self-importance.
In other places, musings from Itch’s personal life fall flat – or to be slightly more fair, fall into harmless but forgettable pop-punk tracks. ‘Not Another Love Song’ if a little generic may be an exception, heavy, gutsy and infectious with its bird-call refrain, but ‘You’ve Taken My Spark’ and ‘Ghost of Us’ are too bloodless to really register, and ‘America Don’t Want Me’ confirms in the negative that age-old question of whether visa troubles can be turned into lasting punk rock anthems.
It’s a solid album for the most part and the hallmarks of a King Blues record are all here – bouncy ukulele riffs, punchy choruses, enjoyable in their familiarity. But it can’t help but fade just a little next to their better works. There are good tracks here, and decent live numbers no doubt – but there’s nothing that seems destined to join, ‘I Got Love’ or ‘Mr. Music Man’ as setlist must-haves. The spoken word of ‘Nike Town’ calls back the outstanding, ‘What If Punk Never Happened?’ from 2008, but doesn’t come near the heights of the latter in social wordsmithery, and the one other vaguely political offering on the album, ‘The Bullingdon Boys’ – while a well-crafted and fun sing-along track – does little with its subject matter, Itch does take a first person view of his elite protagonists, but it becomes a somewhat shallow one.
The fact that the King Blues – or at least, some of them – are back is reason for celebration in itself, and they are accomplished enough that even their weaker albums are worth an investigation to separate the punk-wheat from the punk-chaff. Still, we have to hope that next time its just a little less personal, and that the Blues haven’t forgotten to take in some of the world around them.