Crass made the Clash look like lightweights, blurring politics, music and daily life as they touted an anarcho-punk during the Reagan 80s that never crossed the pond. While Adam Ant, Human League and Bill Idol found ways to churn hits out of punk, Crass’ Penny Rimbaud, Eve Libertine and Steve Ignorant (among others) forged another path, creating their own sub-culture with a distinct stamp — proof that the band and its followers could thrive on the margins of the mainstream.
Jeffrey Lewis’ 12 Songs pays tribute to Crass’ authenticity and d.i.y. aesthetic, much like the genre he is so commonly linked to, anti-folk, which reeks of nothing more than xerox machine ink. Yet he couldn’t sound less like the aggressive Cockney band — this is no tribute album. Lewis’ previous efforts have always had a ramshackle touch, but in transforming Crass’ class angst he clearly feels freer than he has been in a while. His voice remains an impetuous warble, no matter how much he tries to convey Steve Ignorant’s Cockney-accented working-class spite. Using anti-folk’s out-of-tune modality to convince us of his right to marginality, Lewis declares meekly in “I Ain’t Thick” that, “They say I’m a misfit, but I say I’m not, I never set out to exploit another, those smarmy bastards would exploit their mother.” It’s one of the most believable lines on the record — if it wasn’t called 12 Crass Songs, some folks probably wouldn’t guess they weren’t Lewis originals. But that only reveals the spark of ingenuity that lets him make out-of date, out-of-class material feel relevant, even personal.
It doesn’t matter that 12 Crass Songs is a covers album — it’s one of Jeffrey Lewis’ strongest efforts, showing that he can sound as brilliant as he wants to, no matter how pissed off.