Viagra Boys: Cave World Album Review

Shocking listeners with punk-rock satire about humans turning back into monkeys used to be as simple as donning an energy dome and a yellow jumpsuit and refusing to get off the stage until the audience was appropriately repulsed. These days, when cultural and political devolution feel like the starting point rather than a bleak warning, Stockholm’s forehead-tatted Viagra Boys have their work cut out for them.

Their latest LP, Cave World, is fascinated by the conspiracy theories and regressive tendencies of an increasingly visible subset of the online right, following its obsession with traditional values and gender roles to an only somewhat less logical conclusion: a full-on reversion to the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. After last year’s well-received Welfare Jazz, the Boys re-recorded a cache of existing material while American-born vocalist Sebastian Murphy rewrote the lyrics from scratch, stewing on the buzzwords and crises of summer 2021: anti-vaxxers, adrenochrome, mental health, gun violence. Howling loudly and often that “they’re putting little creepy crawlies in the vaccines” (“Creepy Crawlers”), or that a dose might turn you into a computer (“Return to Monke”), Murphy nails the talking points with humor and near zero gravity.

Try as they might to curry offense by embodying the mindset of the alt-right internet troll, Cave World’s weaker moments recall a late-night television monologue: toothless, expendable, and not particularly interested in convincing the uninitiated. The opening lines of “Creepy Crawlers”—“I can’t believe what I read last night/Man, there’s little kids growing up with animal hair/Some of ’em are growing up with tails, maybe even two tails, man”—lays it on too thick to be dangerous. If the merits of Capital-S Satire might be judged by locating it on a spectrum ranging from prescience to disposability, one might ask: Will this project continue to engage (or enrage) audiences 25 years from now? What about five? Viagra Boys’ ripped-from-the-headlines caricature sketches are better timed to get you through the afternoon.

Luckily, what Cave World lacks in bite, it tends to make up for in groove. The production is cleaner than Viagra Boys’ first two albums, bringing their ever-present drive to the fore. The interplay of the rhythm section, vocal layering, and the occasional sax tear elides some of the weaker lyrics, and the album’s bass-forward gloss recalls Danger Mouse’s back catalog of rock-oriented production work (Parquet CourtsWide Awake, the Black KeysEl Camino, Portugal. The Man’s Woodstock). Sieving out the grit from the arrangements introduces crossover potential. Take “Troglodyte,” a Fun House-era Stooges song squeezed through the discourse ringer. Over bouncing bass, Murphy’s verses introduce a WFH-addled gun nut before gleefully asserting that, even in prehistoric times, he’d be as much of an outcast as he is today: “You ain’t no ape/You’re a troglodyte.” It’s their silliest and most salient point on the record: Turning back the clock might not be the salvation that the song’s subject imagines.

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