The global pandemic of 2020 knocked everyone and everything for six. People found themselves working from home and only meeting their friends virtually across a connected network of webcams. Businesses closed – both temporarily and permanently – and some places became ghost towns. Seaside tourist industries suffered; restaurants and pubs wondered if we’d truly reached the end times, and the entertainment industry ground to a halt with gigs being endlessly postponed. For James Robert Morrison, this seemingly endless landscape of bleakness became something of an inspiration. As man who’d always centred his work around social commentary, current affairs and the state of things in his immediate surroundings, the seemingly broken world and the online anger and self-entitlement surrounding it resulted in a huge burst of creativity.
More so than anything he’s ever shared with the world previously, ‘Who Do We Hate Today’ is a brilliant time capsule. Its best songs take inspiration from the things that have kept us wondering, worried and even waspish over the year prior to its arrival. ‘Summer of No Touching’ almost certainly arrived as a fully formed phrase inspired by social distancing, giving Jim an easy launching point. With a subject literally handed to him on a plate, he doesn’t disappoint as he recounts the experience of loving London’s empty streets, seeing stars and “pretending to be Cillian Murphy”. As with his best material, the lyric is juxtaposed by the kind of tune suggesting fun and, in this case, his solitary activities are soundtracked by something that evokes a cheap package holiday. Dodgy synth brass creates a fanfare leading into bouncy pop that shamelessly borrows from ‘Sweets For My Sweet’. These three minutes are archetypal Morrison; the kind of track that feels relevant in the present, yet almost feels like it could stand beside bits of ‘Worry Bomb’ and still work. The pandemic is also touched upon via the lovely ‘Song For The Unsung’, a weighty collision of 70s glam pop and 90s indie where Jim celebrates the people who crack on with the minimum of fuss – the teachers, the nurses, those who put their friends first – and how these little bright lights stop the world from being “so dark”. It mightn’t feature Jim’s punchiest arrangement, but the piano fills, handclaps and a timeless round of “na na na”s add some classic pop to his ever growing musical canon.
In more of a stripped down yet noisy vein, ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’ throws out angular electric guitar chords which at first hint at a love for early Billy Bragg, but the arrival of a loud drum kit on parts of the number suggest more of an indie/punk crossover harking back to the noisier aspects of Jim’s own ‘Day Job’ EP and a couple of old Carter B-sides. Despite its extreme brevity – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, out – it’s relatively punky chops combined with a lyric regarding feeling secure in your own bubble while the world slowly collapses definitely feels like a complete – and very direct – musical experience. One of the album’s most Carter-esque tunes, ‘Evan Knows The Sirens’, isn’t so far removed from ‘Glam Rock Cops’ with its huge swaggering beats and retro chug coming together to create a forceful indie rock sound, while lyrically it taps into a general feeling of unease regarding chaotic city life. Evan wonders if they’ll “get to the fire on time” and reminisces about the “ambulance that took his dad” and his sister who got burnt to death. If overthought, it’s really bloody bleak, but Jim’s ability to take such things and deliver them with a sledgehammer hook comes through once he pierces the downbeat message with a frivolous “nee nah, nee nah, nah”, creating something that’s surely destined to become a singalong favourite in the live setting.
‘#prayfortony’ takes the listener into an even more intense place – if that’s actually possible – with its exploration of misguided self-privilege. Tony “hates black history month” and thinks he’s some kind of martyr. Tony’s attempts at doing good things are also decidedly half arsed compared to the energy he wastes on spouting rubbish, making him an easy target during a fairly typical Morrison monologue. The downbeat narrative is almost saved by some pleasing ringing guitar work and a rising melody on the main hook, but there’s no getting around this being a real downer. With that in mind, it’s still a job well done, obviously. A point more than made. Twisting the idea of self-entitlement on its head, ‘Karen (Is Thinking of Changing Her Name)’ draws lyrical influence from a well circulated internet meme and acts as a very poignant reminder that #notallkarens are the same. You may well consider it an easy target from a lyrical perspective, but Jim’s pathos and phrasing (“own it like a swear word or a flag”) ensures you’ll also connect with the lady in question while, musically, its combination of unrepentant jangle and unexpected drop into Phil Spector drum beats is very appealing. ‘A Random Act’, meanwhile, gives the album a rather downbeat centre piece concerning street crimes, but between the heavy pulsing bass grooves and slow post-punk beats, their lies the heart of something very familiar. There’s plenty in Jim’s vocal delivery here that calls right back to the earlier years of his musical odyssey; it’s general disquiet could be a distant cousin of ‘Midnight On The Murder Mile’ with an inherent sadness brought boiling to the surface, but this isn’t a lazy rehash. There’s plenty of thought gone into the arrangement itself, rising from a hefty bass and sparsely bashed drum, gradually bringing in the guitar, gaining traction with the vocal’s rising anger (“today’s thoughts and prayers are tomorrow’s GIFs and jokes”), before collapsing, completely deshevelled, into the last verse where the still despairing protagonist sounds merely sad and accepting of all of this nastiness being a part of modern life. As an unaccompanied voice trails off into silence, it really gives the listener pause for thought.
Another highlight is supplied by ‘Where’s The Backdoor Steve’ which, in something of a musical shift, trades in Jim’s beloved post-punk jangles and Carter USM-like mechanised waltzes for a quirky piece of electro-pop that seems to fall somewhere between a frivolous piece from The Go Team and a strange experiment from those Swedish indie poppers, The Wannadies. It’s light jangle underscored by funk bass might well be something a little different for Jim, but the lyric – and its natural delivery – are unmistakable. The jaunty music doesn’t really disguise the song’s message of the world falling apart and needing a factory reset, but this rather brief number definitely lends the album some much needed variety. Another piece of classic Morrison, ‘Men’ screams angrily at all of masculinity’s worst traits and horrors (“sending cars into space”, racist dads passing their lack of wisdom onto their sons, those “making $200 a minute” during a pandemic, and arrogant gaslighters) against a Wedding Present-esque indie-punk barrage. It represents something of a comfort zone, maybe, but its pointed anger and sheer energy will certainly make it an instant fan favourite, while ‘Shona Is Dating A Drunk Woman Hating Neanderthal Man’ drops into even more of a predictable schtik. Even at Mr. Bob’s most uninspired, this track still offers flashes of brilliance: there’s one of the most brilliant lyrical couplets (“a bigoted homophobe / sharing a postcode”) and some taut guitar sounds as the performer hammers away in the manner of a punk influenced troubadour, which will be enough alone to make it worth revisiting on a semi-regular basis.
Hardier listeners might find some unexpected pleasure from ‘The Loneliest Elephant’, a song exploring the more tragic elements of the human race. In this case, a beloved but endangered species is used as a simile for a rather heartbreaking and isolated existence. Morrison shows once again how some of his inspirations and imagery are often the most striking, but this doesn’t necessarily make for the most fun listen, coupled as it is with some wholly appropriate but downbeat melodies. However, in reminding everyone that Jim is among the UK’s most gifted wordsmiths – probably only second to an on-form Paul Heaton – it does a perfect job. At the tail end of a largely fantastic LP, the title track works a very sparse guitar part, full of 50s twang and reverb as if the ghost of Chris Isaak circa 1987 has been summoned. Complimenting that with a hushed voice, Jim ponders the idea that some people awaken in the morning instantly full of spite and will be looking for a way to vent. With the ease in which social media can be used as a handy tool for sharing nasty, unwanted spite, it’s a topic that deserves to be cast out into the open.. With only one verse full of thoughts and no clear solution, it doesn’t leave the listener place that feels particularly optimistic, but older fans will certainly recognise this as a familiar parting shot, having experienced similar codas with the likes of ‘The Final Comedown’ all the way back in ’91.
Whether Jim would’ve given the world another solo album so soon after 2020’s critically aclaimed ‘Pop Up Jim Bob’ without the inconvenience of a pandemic and luxury of a grand furlough scheme remains to be seen. What is evident, though, is that this hugely vocal and incredibly perceptive work would’ve turned out very differently in a much happier world. ‘Who Do We Hate Today’ is great. It’s a record absolutely packed with sneering and despairing insights, driven by some equally great indie rock based arrangements. It mightn’t win Jim any new fans at this stage of his long and winding career, but in some ways, that’s not so important – it is fantastic snapshot of the era in which it was born. It For those who enjoyed ‘Pop Up…’ it’ll be at first seen a welcome work from indie rock royalty, before growing quickly into the kind of record that deserves repeated listening, adding a rich vein of (rhetorical) questions and lyrical barbs to an already strong legacy.