Fifteen-odd years into the digital age, and I still don’t know what to call these damn things — odds and sods, scrap piles, dung heaps. But no matter what you call them, these collections of outtakes, soundtrack contributions, EP cuts and other artistic detritus are as ubiquitous to the CD era as the indigestibly encyclopedic box set and the filler-bloated 76-minute CD.
Even the best of the lot — the Archers Of Loaf’s The Speed Of Cattle and Nirvana’s Incesticide spring to mind — are hopelessly sloppy, testing the listener’s patience and programming skills. Fittingly, for a band never beholden to the virtues of consistency or professionalism, the Mekons’ entry into the field quickly proves itself to be one of the few keepers among a rather dubious pack.
I Have Been To Heaven And Back may be the band’s liveliest release of the ’90s — their best being 1991′s hopelessly defeated The Curse Of The Mekons. The lead and title track, inexplicably withheld from the U.S. release of Rock ‘N’ Roll and re-recorded for this collection, initiates a headlong charge barely impeded by the playfully ambivalent “The Ballad Of Sally” (featuring the indelible chorus “nothing, nothing, nothing”) and an extended workout on the Curse track “This Funeral Is For The Wrong Corpse”. These opening tracks, all originally recorded during the Mekons’ late-’80s/early-’90s peak, highlight the band’s strengths: Jon Langford’s powerful, earnest bellow, Sally Timms’ lovely but oddly detached vocals, an ensemble sound always threatening self-destruction, and lyrics never afraid to flaunt their anger or intelligence.
As might be expected, the album can’t possibly fulfill the promise of this opening salvo; too many tracks come off as failed experiments, songs normally buried at the tail end of those 76-minute jobbers. But even the dullest tracks display a clumsy charm — an amateurish, disjointed reggae groove, a hopelessly compromised stab at dance-oriented rock. And, unlike so many other such collections, Heaven And Back yields its share of epiphanies — “You Wear It Well” not the least of which, a ragged-but-right cover which makes clear their debt to the boozy British pub rock of Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane and the Faces.
The album closes on another strong run. “Born To Choose”, with its baldly precise lyrics fueling a barely-controlled fury, revisits the band’s obsession with body-as-capital; and “Unknown Song”, a lovely, mournful lullaby, showcases the underrated fiddle of Susie Honeyman.
Perhaps the most heartening thing about Heaven And Back is the strength of the post-Curse material. Since the battle-without-a-war of Fear And Whiskey, the Mekons have struggled against the century’s secret demons, first heroically, then stoically, finally out of a sense of duty. The post-1995 tracks on Heaven And Back — re-recorded songs, United outtakes and benefit fodder — display a spirit and drive rarely evident in the band’s recent “official” product. It would be a shame if this scrap pile of memories and mementos ultimately proves a funeral shroud rather than the ashes before rebirth. Facing the dawn of a new millennium that promises menaces more real than phantom, we need our anti-heroes more than ever. “There’s trouble down South/Metal keens through the air…”