Viagra Boys Set the Bar High with Brash Post-Punk Hijinks on ‘Welfare Jazz’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Viagra Boys have erected a rock and roll sound that stands on its own. The Sweden-based band came onto the scene in a big way in 2018 with the release of their debut album Street Worms, bringing together a brash style of post-punk, industrial, a smattering of saxophone and synth, and deadpan howling courtesy of heavily tattooed and often shirtless singer Sebastian Murphy. Lyrically, the band stuck to mundane topics like sports, dogs and drugs, making them even more compelling as they slyly blasted concepts of masculinity and other societal expectations. Now, in our time of world chaos, they have returned with their highly anticipated follow-up Welfare Jazz to give us one of the very first releases of 2021.

Like a dog race out of the gate, Welfare Jazz wastes no time taking off with the strong opening track “Ain’t Nice,” hitting us with an onslaught of thick bass lines and fuzzy guitar as Sebastian Murphy spews forth sleazily defiant vocals. Here the band’s skill at layering in a distorted barrage of saxophone, synth and drums is on full display, making for a strong opener that is as wonky as it is danceable. In between songs, we get bizarre interludes that showcase the band’s love of “welfare jazz,” dog-related poetry, and crazed rantings. “Toad” veers into rockabilly territory with a heavy groove and synth flourishes to complement Murphy’s jiving, bluesman lyrics, while “Into the Sun” is a foggy and meandering stomper that brings to mind Tom Waits in its growling, dissonant vocals complete with an unexpected flute jam at the end. “Creatures” is one of the album’s singles, and rightfully so as it is more of a departure for the band as they dive into a poppier, dark New Wave sound brimming with shiny synth and luscious, whispery saxophone. It’s also one of the catchiest songs on the album and probably the closest thing these Boys have to a radio hit.

Musically, the band functions more as a unit, opting to build a wall of sound that engulfs the listener much in the way of acts like Devo, clearly an inspiration. This is exemplified with the instrumental assault of “6 Shooter,” a track that captures the pulsating intensity the band is capable of stirring up, especially in the live setting. This writer can attest to their live power after catching them a handful of times on their barnstorming U.S. tour in 2019. Lyrically, their quirks come through on the frenetic rocker “Secret Canine Agent,” perhaps the best encapsulation of their strange fascination with dogs. The joys of using drugs also make appearances in the Viagra Boys canon, with “I Feel Alive” marching along in slinky fashion as piano, saxophone and flute all dance around Murphy’s rumination on getting high. “Girls & Boys” feels like the closest track to the Street Worms sound with its heavy industrial beat with blabbering lyrics and raucous dog barks that make it feel like a cousin to “Sports,” the band’s best-known track. “To The Country” comes across like a warped and maniacal take on the Presidents of the United States of America’s 90s hit “Peaches,” with a quaint country twang that keeps a sinister edge always lurking in the shadows like some sort of gothic Americana. One of the weirdest tracks on the album, and maybe the weakest (although they are all excellent), is its closer. Murphy teams up with Amy Taylor of Australian punks Amyl and the Sniffers for a take on John Prine’s classic “In Spite of Ourselves” that feels like it could be a drunken karaoke session yet is also a creative reimagining of the playful country-folk classic duet.

Welfare Jazz is a major progression for a band that has already been blowing minds with a sound unlike anything else out there, not to mention truly brilliant music videos. Their serrated and offbeat approach to rock and roll balances dark humor and unexpected thrills with the kind of dangerous edge that is sadly missing from most music these days. As one of the first album releases of the year, the Viagra Boys have set the bar high.

Photo: Fredrik Bengtsson

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