Working Men’s Club ‘Fear Fear’ (Heavenly)

Let’s play Working Men’s Club review bingo. The Golden Lion in Todmorden! Syd Minsky-Sargeant’s “SOCIALISM” T-shirt! They were indie, now they’re synthpop! Having barely scraped into their 20s, WMC are already a band with enough baggage to fill a double seat on the TransPennine Express to Manchester Victoria. And, for the full house, how about we put Manchester itself on the bingo card as well? The new Mark E Smith! Oh, come on. As long as he lives, Minsky-Sargeant will never stain enough pub ceilings to fill those particular plastic loafers. 

Still, there’s enough of Smith’s curmudgeonly contrariness at play on ‘Fear Fear’ to warm the cockles of Peel obsessives. How best to kick off that high-pressure second album? With half a minute of monotone, buzzsaw synth, of course. A half-empty pint glass parked on the keyboard, and two fingers flicked through the windows of the Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Such is the uncompromising welcome afforded by opening track ‘19’, before the hiss of utilitarian drum machines transform it into the bastard son of ‘Being Boiled’. And ‘19’? Yes, the dreaded Covid, but also Minsky-Sargeant’s age when penning this vulnerable lockdown allegory. It’s nature’s revenge as dark sexual encounter: “A timid dirty whisper, a flicker in the eye / She beckons as he shivers, he lunges as he cries”.

The title track is similarly unyielding, a lament for the Zoom generation heralded by a cavalcade of police siren keyboards. But the band – Minsky-Sargeant plus bassist Liam Ogburn and synth/guitar players Mairead O’Connor and Hannah Cobb – are at their most potent when casting off post-punk austerity and throwing themselves into pop decadence. 

‘Widow’ shifts the album up a gear, its earworm synths a clear tip of the trilby to Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode. “Lust was easy until you died / Now I fuck inside my head but not outside,” deadpans Minsky-Sargeant. It’s a uniquely defiant breed of teenager that measures the loss of pandemic life by the reduction of leg-over opportunities, but the song is a belter. Elsewhere, and true to form, he boldly walks the line between cocky self-assurance and knowing self-mockery. “Why would thy care? / Thou must just be bluffing” he growls on the house-influenced ‘Ploys’ – sounding for all the world like the missing link between Frankie Knuckles and ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’. 

“Lyrically, the first album was mostly a personal documentation,” Minsky-Sargeant has professed. “This is a blur between a personal and third-person perspective of what was going on.” It’s an approach nailed immaculately on ‘Cut’, the album’s true moment of unalloyed, foot-shuffling pop. It’s brilliant. Infectious. A rallying cry to rise from the rubble of a broken Britain. “All the time it’s just running around my soul / Got to give it, got to take it, got to break it, got to make it”, he stammers, as mellifluous guitar lines ascend around him, dragging Calder Valley gloom into tentative sunshine. It’s a slicker, fuller sound than their first album, and further still from the organic rumblings of 2019 debut single ‘Bad Blood’. The band, lest we forget, has undergone a complete line-up change since those early, brutal warning shots. But Arctic Monkeys producer Ross Orton has returned to hole them up in his Sheffield studio, and while the echoes of nascent Human League experiments undoubtedly linger, it’s perhaps the legacy of another Steel City luminary that is felt most profoundly – Jarvis Cocker. 

Although Minsky-Sargeant seems unlikely to don corduroy flares and knitted ties at any point in his career, the deadpan delivery, powerhouse synths and spiralling guitar chops certainly carry a whiff of the gritty, thwarted glamour that characterised pre-fame Pulp. 

Elsewhere, the minimalist ‘Heart Attack’ has an irresistible disco bassline – a Calder Valley Chic, if you will – and closing track ‘The Last One’ is danceable, dark psychedelia with a whiff of Stone Roses. Still, it’s easy for middle-aged reviewers to play Spot The Influence. Minsky-Sargeant, one imagines, cares nary a jot for such cynical indulgence, and nor should he. As half the artists mentioned above will testify, second albums can be a bugger to get right, but Working Men’s Club have done everything by the book – riding a raft of praise with a record that builds and burgeons without ever losing the essential essence of… well, whatever it was that made them great in the first place. 

In their case? Uncompromising northern belligerence and the undoubted promise of even greater things to come. Cross that off your bingo card and clear another seat on the next train out of Todmorden.

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