Ariel Sharratt & Mathias Kom show us on Never Work that being downtrodden doesn’t mean you’re helpless.
When Ariel Sharratt and Mathias Kom set out to record an album of work songs set in the present day and the future, they couldn’t have imagined they’d be dropping an album in the midst of an economic paradigm shift not seen since the Great Depression. In the present era of rent strikes, layoffs, and the nature of work changing for nearly everyone on the planet, Never Work provides food for thought in the idiosyncratic style Sharratt and Kom are known for as members of The Burning Hell.
If large gatherings were allowed right now, these are the songs that would energize picket lines and political protesters. Never Work is the product of an interesting thought experiment: if Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and their ilk were singing about the struggles of the common human in 2020, what would those songs sound like? They probably wouldn’t be as wry as the songs Sharratt and Kom have come up with, but there would be a lot of ideological common ground. Over nine songs, Sharratt and Kom take on automation, Amazon, the gig economy, and corporate downsizing. There are tragic deaths and glorious uprisings to overthrow capitalist overlords; there’s a bevy of hopeless people finding comfort with other similarly hopeless people.
As with The Burning Hell, the crown jewel of Never Work is the richness of the lyrics. Kom’s wit and specific, strange images make his songs instantly memorable, and this latest batch is no different. In “Monitors”, for example, we get a beautiful song sung by Sharratt about the sudden death of a company. Chery hums an Inbreds song; Kevin thinks about the time he Xeroxed his ass; an old floor supervisor is gone, but “he was a Nazi, even though he signed his emails with kiss emojis.” There’s also a brand new sentence: “Now a hundred goddamnits pepper the beans as they spill.” It’s the kind of richness I’ve come to expect of Kom, and that’s just one song.
Even in darker places, Kom and Sharratt find light. “Two Jeffs” is a longer ballad about Jeff Bezos (Evil Jeff) and a regular person named Jeff (Virtuous Jeff) who ends up working at one of Amazon’s notoriously hellish warehouses. Though the song has a tragic ending (as Sharratt and Kom forewarn at the beginning, while also making clear that not all Jeffs are bad), there’s hope that Bezos’ supervillain status won’t last forever. In the boppy “Everything For Everyone,” two roommates — one employed, one unemployed — find the world has changed for the worse, but end up getting to know their neighbours a lot better. Automation can’t stop Mrs. Anjuli Patel in “The Robots vs. Mrs. Patel”. In fact, she starts a revolution using the tools of her oppressors.
Other times, it’s hard to be anything but wistful. “Talkin’ Gig Economy Blues” is a darkly funny song about someone with an ethnomusicology degree trying to find a job and barely making a living by stringing together side hustles that pay him little to nothing. The title track filters unemployment through the lens of a couple who seem happy together but are nonetheless weighed down by economic forces beyond their control. Fittingly, Sharratt and Kom end the album with a cover of Malvina Reynolds’ “I Don’t Mind Failing,” a song from the point of view of an embittered person who finds contentment in suffering in squalor but will never miss a chance to step on someone else to succeed in life.
When this pandemic ends, the nature of work will have changed drastically in one way or another. Whether we see a Mrs. Patel-led uprising for the people or the continued reign of Evil Jeff is anyone’s guess. But as Sharratt and Kom show, being downtrodden doesn’t mean you’re helpless.