But before we get there, a little recent history. In late summer 2020, in the heartbeat between lockdown#1 and lockdown#2, Working Mens Club released the debut album of the year. Critically acclaimed and commercially loved, the album was a surprise and refreshing Pandemic breakthrough.
Working Men’s Club by Working Men’s Club was ‘the Heavenly sound of young Yorkshire’. More specifically, it was the sound of singer and songwriter Syd Minsky-Sargeant processing a teenage life in Todmorden in the Upper Calder Valley.
Writing and demoing in his childhood bedroom, the 18 year old lyricist-lad was armed with a Korg Volca FM digital synthesiser, a 1986-vintage Roland Rhythm Composer TR-505 drum machine and MIDI sequencer, and a battered MacBook Pro laptop. He was aided by ace Sheffield producer-wingman Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, MIA, The Fall) and his bandmates Liam, Mairead and Rob. So bolstered, the frontman channelled synth-rock, Krautpop, Afrobeat, jolting dancefloor energy and the sonics of Cabaret Voltaire.
But as he points, out, he was 16 when he wrote some of those songs. That was him then, there, stuck on the precipitous uplands leading away from the River Calder. Now 20, he had to get up and out of the Valley – at, ironically, a time when none of us could go anywhere much. So his imagination, and his vision, had to do the travelling.
Get ready, then, to embrace ‘Fear Fear’ a record for which Minsky-Sargeant submitted to Heavenly many of the song demos on 2nd October 2020, the very day its predecessor was released.
Get up, get on, get going: from autumn 2020 onwards, for a solid year, Minsky-Sargeant and Orton worked, on and off in week-long chunks, in the producer’s Sheffield studio. The musician finessed the new songs, and wrote yet more – so much so that at one point he contemplated a double album. But he was talked down from the ledge, and mercifully so. Fear Fear is a taut yet expansive, intimate though epic, intense and ultimately elevational 10-song set, we might call Syd Minsky-Sargeant: The Plague Diaries. Any longer, someone might have got hurt.
“The title Fear Fear summarises a mood that’s been around for 18 months – and, in fact, for a lot longer. There’s a miserable kind of war that’s going on. People are scared of things aside from coronavirus. It documents time during lockdown to an extent, but it isn’t just about that” he explains. “The first album was mostly a personal documentation lyrically, this is a blur between personal and a third-person perspective of what was going on’
The pandemic thistle is grasped from the off, in opening track 19. A dirty disco robo-shimmy with an extended instrumental opening, it eventually sees Minsky-Sergeant begin WMC’s second album with as sinuous and evocative a turn-of-phrase as he did his first: “A timid dirty whisper / a flicker in the eye / she beckons as he shivers / he lunges as he cries…”
“It’s about lots of juxtapositions between images of being scared.” Yes, it’s “19” as in Covid-19 – although he was also 19 when he wrote it – but it’s more incantation than lamentation. Lyrically, too, “it’s about how the environment came back and reminded humanity that it’s far more powerful than we are.”
Then there’s the track Fear Fear, where acid squelches are prefigured with the shivery thrill of what sounds like an air-raid klaxon.
“With that sound, I wanted to combine the digital element with the more physical, real-life threat element. And I just loved that sound – I’d been fucking around with a Juno 106 synth. I wrote half the record on that.
“The song is about the Zoom world that we all went into – how everyone’s social lives became online,” he expands. “Instead of going to the pub, you’d open up the laptop. All your socialising – and work – became virtual. Me and Ross did it: we made a record over Zoom, and did a load of remixes,” he adds of their work as Minksy Rock. “Or your relationships become completely digital, and your perspective of someone’s house and life becomes what you can see on the screen.”
The first blast from the new album is lead single Widow.
A pumped-up, amped-up electro-choral shout-out with stabs of Peak Depeche, it’s Minsky-Sargeant’s empathetic reach out to those left lost by recent life, literally or metaphorically. In its original form, “it was an old song which was a first album demo. But it was a guitar tune so it didn’t make it. But now we’ve completely reworked and reproduced it – and it’s still completely relevant to the overall idea. It’s not a concept album, but there is a meaning behind the record, in terms of death. There’s been a lot of death over the past two years.”
For all that, Widow, like the rest of the album, is no long dark night of the soul. Yes, there is bleakness – how could there not be, given the challenges last two years? – but there is also hope and empathy. And when even those are in short supply, there are banging tunes aplenty.
Case in point: Ploys, a techno-soul masterpiece that Minsky-Sargeant admits is purposefully “unsettling. That’s one of the more personal songs”
Or there’s the sparkling-sounding Cut, where the irresistible melodicism and bounce belie the moody message, meaning it will nonetheless be igniting festival fields this coming summer in the wake of the July release of Fear Fear.
Breaking down its creation, Minksy-Sargeant says: “I had the synth and drum machine backing track done for about a year. It used to have this really long sample on the front of it from a 1979 New York gang documentary – 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s. Then it was an instrumental, Kraftwerk/Kraut-y thing. Then the lyrics just came to me in the shower. I did a lot of talking during lockdown, with Ross in particular, Mairead and my parents. And this monologue came out of my head after thinking about lots of things in society. Then I wrote that guitar part at the same time.
“I like the contrast of it being happy, uplifting music and really dark lyrics. And I was left to do exactly what I wanted to do,” concludes Minksy-Sargeant. “In the studio, it was far more produced this time, and it was just me and Ross mainly. Because we’d done all that Minsky Rock stuff, we knew we worked together really well. There’s no breaking that at this point. I completely trust Ross, and he completely trusts me.
“But also, the mix process was a lot longer. It felt like we really carved stuff out. It’s not a minimal record, this, certainly compared to the first one. That’s because there’s been a lot more going on that needed to be said. That needed to be portrayed. So it needs to come across as busy.”
Making the busy feel finessed and the dreadful feel magical – Fear Fear manages those feats, and then some. Or, as Syd Minksy-Sargeant puts it: “We just set out to make the best-sounding album we could.”
Job done and game on.
Words: Craig McLain