[YEAR001; 2021]

For their sophomore record, Sweden’s Viagra Boys are employing the tried and true method of going big or going home. This is no small undertaking for a band that already has put it all on the line previously with 2018’s valiant debut Street Worms. There, the post-punkers swirled sloshy vocals and sloppy aesthetic to make for a fun but flawed performance. Welfare Jazz doesn’t dispose of the fun, but everything about this second round feels bigger and brighter, something they started with on 2020’s Common Sense EP.

Sebastian Murphy takes his vocal delivery in a more direct approach, folding it into the music more than in the past. “Creatures” finds the band in some of their cleanest territory, where, accompanied by a synth line reminiscent of an 80s dystopian future flick, Murphy submerges his audience in visuals aplenty: “We trade in copper / and stolen bikes or shiny things / with lots of buttons on them.” He paints a picture here, in watercolors no less, of life at the bottom, but the way he pulls everything into him feels organic and fleshed out. Welfare Jazz shows a band still searching for footing and direction, but once they find something that sticks, they exploit the hell out of it, and “Creatures” is one of the finest examples.

The chaotic performances they are known for still shine through, there’s no mistaking a Viagra Boys record – the band’s ‘yeehaw’ playfulness might distract, but it’s all in good fun. There’s a bit of extra fluff here that some may consider disposable cuts, specifically the interlude tracks that don’t even hit the one-minute mark like “This Old Dog” and “Best in Show II”, but these brief commercial breaks are all factoring into the greater message of Welfare Jazz: working class individuals are treated like dogs. Every country has a working class, Viagra Boys are just showing one side of it, and their mutt analogies are no more provocative than the next – they simply do it well.

The Joy Division-inflected “Secret Canine Agent” offers more zany lyrics about paranoia – “Looks like he gave me a signal / Oh when he lifted his paw / That means the beagle has landed” – which all feeds into the conspiracy machine in a sarcastic manner. Welfare Jazz pulls back to its major theme of lower class struggles by touching on addiction with standout “I Feel Alive”, which finds Murphy’s narrator getting high on being clean but trading one addiction (narcotics, presumably) for others (sex, television, etc.) all for the quest of feeling reborn – “I tell you what it feels just like / the whole damn world can see me smile / I haven’t felt like this in quite a while / feel like a new man yeah / and such a brand new guy.”

Burning it all to the ground is contemplated directly after with “Girls & Boys”, which finds our protagonist scorned by drugs, boys, and girls – but loved by dogs and shrimp. “This fucked up world keeps spinning round (girls) / but one day imma burn it down (drugs) / there are sometimes that I feel so low (girls) / but I know I’mma burn it down,” he professes. This kicks off the final trio of tracks on Welfare Jazz, a natural denouement after everything experienced up to this point. Tired, aggravated, pissed off, this average Joe is done with the negativity on the piano-led “To the Country”, where Murphy tells a tale of a woman he wants to abscond with: “You could be happier out there where no one’s in a hurry / and I know I don’t show it but I think that’s what I want now,” he persuades, hoping to convince that this is the way to escape all of these demons. It’s underlined with a twang, something Murphy’s used repeatedly but effectively throughout the length of Viagra Boys’ tenure.

Welfare Jazz manages to be thoughtful and patriotic without losing its identity. There’s a very sweet and endearing closing to it too, with a cover of John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves” that’s reminiscent of “Well It’s True That We Love One Another” by The White Stripes. Murphy duets with Amy Taylor of Aussie punk band Amyl and the Sniffers to bring everything to some peaceful closure. Of course, there’s only peace for a moment, as tomorrow is another day filled with more hardships and struggles. Whether there’s truth to this story or not, Viagra Boys have successfully captured a side of the working class that demands empathy, and it’s their strongest statement to date.

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