Back in 2013, guitar wizard and family man Kurt Vile was being interviewed by tastemakers Pitchfork when he got asked about selling out. It was a pertinent question: a few months before, Vile had been publicly taken to task by Pat Stickles, the lead singer of snotty post-punks Titus Andronicus, for allowing the Bank of America to feature his sweet, somewhat sad little song ‘Baby’s Arms’ in their advertisements.
To defend himself, Vile called into question not only Stickles’ comments, but the validity of contemporary punk. “In this day and age, ‘punk ideals’ are totally irrelevant,” Vile shot back. “Not that it isn’t cool to have them, but times have changed, man.”
It was the answer that launched a thousand thinkpieces, kicking off another interminable news cycle in which critics leapt to their time-honoured positions and began hammering their nails into punk’s coffin. “The heroes of the genre have sold out,” they bleated. “The scene is dead.”
And so it went and so it went, with grubby fingers pointed at everyone from old and swollen Johnny Lydon – the one-time Sex Pistol having spent the last six months appearing on morning television shows to spit honey into the ears of Trump-loving conservatives – to the once fiery Ian MacKaye, now best known as a talking head in a slew of reverential punk documentaries. “Look at these punks now,” the critics sneered. “Look at how little they represent the counter-culture spirit!”
And sure, there’s lots to be said about figures like Lydon and Mackaye, not to mention the mainstream media culture that props them up year after year – but what the fuck does that have to do with punk? It’s like using the spittle-soaked ravings of Mark Latham to slur the future of the Australian Labor party; like using the physical fitness of retired, geriatric tennis players to denigrate Venus and Serena.
Because the punk of the ‘80s and ‘90s is gone, sure – as it should be. Navel-gazing and historicity are only ever going to slow a genre down, and retrophilia is for people who make “Best Of” CD compilations, not bands looking to do exciting work or to subvert the status quo. So yeah, sure, Lydon is old, and the all but one of the Ramones are dead, and no-one with an ounce of self-respect makes overblown, overly polished punk music about the ailing monarchy anymore. And who fucking cares? Anyway, when people say punk is dead, they’re speaking in code. They don’t mean “punk” is dead, they mean the brand of punk peddled by straight white dudes from the ‘70s and ‘80s is dead; punk that had its time, and had its place, and is now an era of history rather than an exciting, fresh genre. To which most of us might say, “good”.
Which is all a very longwinded and roundabout way of saying Wet Lips, a three-piece based out of Melbourne, Australia, are the future of punk. It’d be easy to call them the heirs apparent to bands like Fugazi and Black Flag, but they are more than that, and they follow in no lineage. Their debut release, a ten-track long masterpiece that time might well reveal to be the best album released this year, is so unindulgent – so singularly lacking in historicity, or the all-too common reverential hat-tipping that ruins so many otherwise great punk records – that it feels like little else.
This is not a band who spend their first three tracks citing their auditory references like a particularly diligent uni student, nor an act who waste any time covering ground that has already been efficiently covered before. So expect no aping or time-wasting: at only 25 minutes long, Wet Lips is punk songwriting at its most clean and uncompromised.
It’s not, mind you, that Wet Lips re-invent the wheel – it’s more that the band fling it down entirely new hills, subverting old tropes from the inside and refusing to buckle under the weight of a punk past they waste no time kneeling before. Songs are as fast as switchblades, and about as ceremoniously deployed: a number like ‘Space Jam’, the short, sharp track that kicks off the record’s second half, is over before it’s even really begun, and its brevity brings to mind the words of Raymond Carver. “Get in, get out, don’t linger, go on,” he said, and the band do, capping off the song with a dash of reverb as artfully dropped as a full stop.
Like any good punk act they have their targets, and like any great punk act, their targets are unique. Indeed, the album’s standout might well be ‘Can’t Take It Anymore’, an elegant takedown of your typical Bad Seeds loving, Melbourne Bitter swilling snot-nosed fuckboy. “Yeah you wear your wifebeater, your jeans are ripped, yeah you look working class,” sneers lead singer and guitarist Grace Kindellan across a bucking chorus, and the song runs on pure piss and vinegar.
Nothing is repeated; no line or hook is wasted; and the album has all the terrifying efficiency of something genuinely dangerous. Which, make no mistake, it is. It will offend the usual stiff upper lip sorts, but it’s true genius means that it will offend even some of those who thought they were unoffendable – that it will get under the skin of those craft beer-swilling Slint-lovers who have no idea just how safe their listening tastes have become. And in that way, Wet Lips is punk in the truest sense of the word – punk in the way that will never, ever fucking die. It is a masterpiece assembled out of broken glass. It is the future.