“I’m irrelevant!” James Smith repeats at the climax of The Incident, midway through his band Yard Act’s debut album. In fact the Leeds frontman finds himself in the thick of a new wave of words-first post-punk bands that extends from the impassioned sloganeering of IDLES and brooding poetry of Fontaines D.C. to the bizarre bitterness of Sleaford Mods and outright surrealism of Dry Cleaning.
Smith speaks rather than sings, and is funny. He’s the latest in a line of wry northerners skewering their surroundings that includes the Pulp of Common People, the riot predicting Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys back when they were writing about being lairy lads out and about in Sheffield. The band grabbed early attention with their single Fixer Upper, a spiky satire about gentrification on which a Partridgesque character called Graham brags that “Two homes and a Rover comes from hard graft.”
That song isn’t here but the new music still teeters on the verge of novelty. It’s energetic and raw and not always memorable enough to appeal without Smith’s sarcastic one-liners. Both Land of the Blind and Rich are built on skeletal basslines and little else. However, lyric after lyric leaps out.
On the title track he has a character offering the band some unwanted advice: “Just don’t be doing originals/Play the standards and don’t get political/I know what that dickhead singer’s like.” Dead Horse disobeys that helpful chap by taking a withering look at Brexit’s aftereffects: “Are you seriously still trying to kid me that all culture will be just fine/When all that’s left is knobheads Morris dancing to Sham 69?”
It’s as this short album heads into its final reel that it starts to show enough invention to demand return visits. Tall Poppies adds piano and electronic beats to a long story about a friend who was a football star at school but never realised his potential. Pour Another builds to become highly danceable. Then 100% Endurance provides a closing surprise, with a rare moment of musical beauty and a snark-free assertion that it’s actually a wonderful life. “It’s hippy bullshit but it’s true,” Smith half-sings. “Give it everything you’ve got knowing that you can’t take it with you/And all you ever needed to exist has always been within you.”
The amusing cynicism that came before makes the warm glow we’re left with all the cosier. It’s also a sign that this band can go much further.