Jeffrey Lewis: 12 Crass Songs

> Anyone not associated with cult punk band Crass could be forgiven for thinking that Jeffrey Lewis was the author of the songs on this album. The
overwhelming but glaringly relevant barrage of messages that bombards the listener on 12 Crass Songs undeniably harks back to the early days of punk, yet is delivered here in a beautiful stripped down acoustic arrangement, almost seemingly designed to lure the listener into a false sense of mellow apathy. But one doesn’t have to dig deep to understand the message that
Lewis, with the aid of his covers of songs by Crass, is trying to convey.

> For 12 Crass Songs is a rare thing indeed: a contemporary rock album that howls with genuine anger, a hate-filled and angst-ridden rejection of the dogmatic, corrupt and jaded nature of modern society which manages to sound neither archaic nor sanctimonious in its heavy reliance on punk’s original catalyst. You can forget veiled references to the turmoil in Iraq or flaccid
attempts at running down the Bush Administration; virtually every recent artist’s attempt to rail against societal evils sounds restrained in

> ‘It Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick,’ with its defiant mantra of “They can fuck off ‘cos they ain’t got me/and they can’t buy my dignity” is a scream of individuality amidst a society which promotes “standards and values on a living room screen,” and tells you not to “use your brains when your body makes the splash.” It serves as a welcome rebellion against the comodified
nature of human life which defines the Huxley-esque hell of the previous song, ‘End Result.’

> However, the listener has to make inferences to the nature of “they” until Lewis delivers a damning indictment of religion: “They were just preparing a crucifix for me/a life of guilt, of pain, a holy misery.....the Bible’s just
a blueprint for their morality scam....they stand there in the pulpit, doling out their lies/offering forgiveness then they talk of eyes for eyes.” But Lewis’s limp assertion that “I never set out to exploit another” at the end
of this barrage of rejection doesn’t prevent the listener from wondering what assets there are to him – indeed we, us – beyond being defined by what they are not. The listener is forced to ask of both them self and Lewis what exactly we are if we’re not part of such a society.

> However, ‘The Gasman Cometh’ turns the album away from the microcosm of the individual’s personal hell and introduces a far more sinister note: “What will you do when the gas taps turn?/where will you be when the bodies
burn?/will you just watch as the cattle trucks roll by/pretend it isn’t happening, turn a blind eye?” The song is littered with powerful and astute aphorisms that warn against the corruption, violence and potential for violating individual rights that lies inherent within the state: “Don’t wait for it to come for you, ‘cos it surely will/ The guardians of the state are trained to search, destroy and kill. The ashes at Auschwitz are just a small leap/ when power is threatened, life is cheap.”

> ‘Banned from the Roxy’ is a low point though. It is a mundane rant which borders on a socialist polemic in its allusions to “class” and “corporations.” “I’m not quite ready with my gun/but we’ve always got our songs,” claims Lewis. Any intelligent listener at this point would merely ask “so what?” The unlikelihood of such a stance achieving anything seems lost on the musicians however.

> But this is remedied on ‘What Next Columbus?,’ where Lewis asserts that “Marx had an idea from (nothing more than) the confusion of his head/
then there were a thousand more waiting to be lead/ the books are sold, the quotes are brought/ you learn them well and then you’re caught/in another’s left, another’s right/another’s peace, another’s fight.” In a remarkable piece of self-analysis he seems to recognise that ideas claiming to be revolutionary can also crush the potential for thinking for oneself and defining one’s identity, with Jesus, Einstein, Mussolini and Sartre all in turn being trotted out as popular, yet false examples of paths to redemption.
The calm, glittering nature of this ballad seems to reflect the realisation that the fervour of rage can lead to people searching for misplaced forms of salvation: “D’you fear the confusion, the lack of control?” The singer directly asks the listener “Who is your leader? / which is your flock?” Think carefully about what you want, the message seems to be.

> ‘Punk is Dead’ reiterates this. The album here turns against its own source, backed up by the lack of a DIY-ethic within the music; unashamedly sparse and acoustic, lacking in electricity and adorned with only a piano. “Punk is dead/ it’s just another cheap product for the consumer’s head.....CBS promoted the Clash/ but not for revolution, just for cash,” Lewis sings. “Movements are systems and systems kill/movements are expressions of the public will.” So perhaps music can’t change the world, but Lewis and his
band still seem to have faith that it can change a person’s life. Have faith in nothing, and trust no-one but yourself.

> The latter part of the album becomes more uplifting, particularly with ‘Big A, Little A.’ “Be exactly who you want to be/do what you want to do/ I am he and she is she/ but you’re the only you/ No-one else has got your eyes/can
see the things you see/ it’s up to you to change your life and my life’s up to me” stands as perhaps the ultimate rejection of revolutionary ideals, and strikes a blow against socialism, authoritarianism and dogmatism in favour of
pure and simple liberty. The only revolution called for here appears to be one of the heart: “No-one ever changed things by pulling down the
steeple/systems are in here ‘cos they’re mostly made of people.” Amen.

> Ultimately, the message of 12 Crass Songs endures precisely because it doesn’t offer an alternative system; it refrains from trying to build through sound and words a radically different vision of a future society as a better
alternative to the one depicted on the album. The musicians seem almost painfully self-aware of the fact that to do so would be laying themselves
open to the very dangers that every other system has become susceptible to, ones which they have warned against so eloquently on this masterpiece of a debut. Instead, the album merely preaches salvation through individual strength and conscience, with a plea to the listener to never forget their own importance and worth in the face of the vulgarity, banality and at times monstrous evil of the world. A simple message no doubt, yet one that is maybe the most effective weapon against the destructiveness of a “system” which
threatens to consume us all.

Sheraz Qureshi

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