The Lawrence Arms – ‘Skeleton Coast’

By Tom Walsh

Since forming in 1999, The Lawrence Arms have wanted to take us through the windswept streets of their hometown of Chicago. We’d hear tales from the late night bars, the basement shows, and generally be thrust into the claustrophobic nature of life in the belly of a sprawling metropolis.

Now they want to take you to ‘Skeleton Coast’ –  a blood orange panorama where only the howls of coyotes and the crashing of waves can be heard as the sun sets, and a reference to the shipwrecked shores of Namibia. The trio’s seventh album follows a long break from 2014’s ‘Metropole’ but, in their words, this is their “most urgent” record, with an approach unlike their previous releases.

Recorded in two weeks in the dust bowl setting of El Paso, Texas, ‘Skeleton Coast’ is an album that matches its surroundings. It’s a much darker effort than we’ve come to expect from the Lawrence Arms, and hits upon themes of introspection, anxiety, and that gnawing search for something missing in our lives.

The symbol of the coyote as a scavenger is touched upon frequently. Chris McCaughan sings “we are wolves, chasing the light of the moon” on ‘Under Paris’, comparing humans to these prairie dogs, wading through a dark expanse to find just a mere crack of light of positivity. 

It’s a similar tone posed on opener ‘Quiet Storm’ as McCaughan battles internal struggles – “I search for truths in a coffee cup / but inspiration is an idle drug / a quiet storm is raging in my mind / hurricane of my own design”, he states as he tries to compartmentalise his surroundings. However, in true Lawrence Arms tradition, there are more uplifting moments through hubristic darkness.

Lead single ‘Planes Trains and Automobiles’, sung by bassist Brendan Kelly, is the trio’s classic sound and punctuated with his yearning for lost love, “remember when we used to hold hands? Now I just go out alone when I need to dance”. Even through ‘Last Last Words’, McCaughan grows to accept his unusualness even though he’s “dressed to kill for oblivion”.

The Lawrence Arms’ decision to break from their usual recording process has produced a much more layered record. ‘Skeleton Coast’ conveys the anger, stress, and worries we can associate with this particular moment in time. McCaughan and Kelly’s night and day vocal styles dovetail effortlessly as the record sways between frantic punk songs and melodic poetry.  

Tracks like ‘Dead Man’s Coat’ and ‘Coyote Crown’ put you on those vast plains of west Texas, where mere survival is the primary concern, while tracks like ‘Demon’ and ‘Ghostwriter’ are almost acts of escapism, dreaming of a different world or path we could have taken at a juncture in our lives.

Portuguese sailors would refer to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast as “The Gates of Hell”, as the relenting tide would drag marine life and ships to their end, so it’s quite apt that its name should adorn a record released in the midst of a pandemic. However, in these unsettled surroundings that McCaughan and Kelly create, there are the momentary glimmers of light that do provide hope that this will one day blow over.

It’s been a long six years without the cutting commentary that The Lawrence Arms are able to deliver so succinctly – it’s good to hear it once again.

TOM WALSH

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