Perfect Sound Forever


Meryl Streek and Nealo's different worldviews
by Brian Cousins

Isn't it interesting in life when you are presented not just with a fork in the road but with also the perfect embodiments of where these forks will lead you? Two Irish spoken word artists embody two very different reactions to very similar life circumstances and each has taken a completely different approach to dealing with them.

These two artists - Meryl Streek and Nealo, both in their 30's, coincidentally living in Canada for several years before returning to Ireland- embody two completely different outlooks. Each, after having played in various conventional bands over the years, has found a much wider audience after changing their approach to music making.

Skreek's an agitator that embraces blunt rhetoric and aggression which seeks confront the audience while Nealo is a mellow dude that raps over soulful jazzy beats with insight, humor and compassion. The similarities between their life stories run deep- both are from modest backgrounds in Dublin, both spent years in bands never that never gained much traction and both reassessing their lives in a Dublin that has seen "boom and bust" in their lifetime. The contrast however between their outlooks and approaches says so much about the world we now find ourselves in.

COVID and world events post-COVID have completely changed the realities that most people now face in the U.S. and U.K. These harsh realities are now reminiscent of the early '80's, the era of Reagan and Thatcher, where the world seemed in constant crisis and economic decline. Then, high unemployment, spiraling inflation and a sense of social inequality where the backdrop was an ideological clash between conservatism/social Darwinism and collectivism and the welfare state. Compared to the circumstance that both the U.S. and the U.K. find themselves in today, this all seems like a storm in a teacup (which it was not) but rather this a refection of just how dire the choices and their consequences we face today are. With the U.S. seemingly limping towards authoritarianism and "alternative facts", science, the rule of law and common decency have never been more under threat. With the possible return to the White House of Trump things would get exponentially worse with democracy itself under threat. Just as the collective memory in the U.S. did not recall the 1918 Spanish Flu (as it was interestingly called) so many in the U.S. were vaccine deniers during COVID, which lead to countless unnecessary deaths and similarly so many in the U.S. seem so oblivious to the dangers of authoritarianism, that they are willing to sacrifice their basic rights in the service of a corrupt and bloated demigod.

Britian/U.K., post Brexit, post COVID, post 12 years of Tory austerity with the dismantling of the societal guard rails has emerged as another divided nation. Bitter inequality, housing shortages, a degraded healthcare system (once the envy of the world) and food shortages have unnerved the vulnerable and rendered the hollow promises of politicians null and void. In these circumstances, music of rage, protest and disgust has emerged that serves to both vent anger and frustration and to implicitly and explicitly challenge the status quo.

The Louder than War site founded by John Robb is the primary supporter and amplifier of this music. Artists such as Sleaford Mods, Idles and Dry Cleaning were the precursors to this movement. Now, it is artists like Benefits (LTW's critics record of '23), Bob Vylan, Dead Sheehan and Meryl Streek (let's not waste a cute idea!) that embody this "rant and rage" movement.

Spoken word music has become a massive part of the movement and the parallels with rap and hip hop should be obvious but these acts seem to channel the anger of and take direction from the anarcho-punk movement, best exemplified by Crass in the late '70's/early '80's.

Crass emerged from the London punk scene more as political activists than musicians and used music mainly as a way to reach an audience. It was never about entertainment or enlightenment- the focus was to challenge the political and religious hierarchy and illustrate how the State and established religion worked together to control and constrain the individual. Crass offered a completely alternative lifestyle and philosophy divorced from consumerism, nationalism, sexual conformity and repression. They seemed until recently to be confined as a footnote in the history of Punk but are now being embraced again by dent of the drastic economic conditions that affect millions in Britain.

Meryl Streek is a Dublin based performer follows this mindset and has been embraced by LTW. He rants/raps over a pop-punk/cinematic backdrop and rails against the Catholic Church and its recently exposed sexual scandals as well as landlords and the bourgeoisie in general. He has referenced the anarcho-punk movement as being a huge influence and his music (more melodic and arranged than DYI punk) provides the context for his broadsides. His persona is built by using colored contact lenses that give hie eyes a reptilian/ vampire look. He performs live over pre-recorded tracks with constant strobe lighting to create a confrontational and theatrical show. John Lydon was suitably impressed and invited him to open for PIL on their recent European tour.

From an interview in Louder Than War (June 6, 2023), Streek states,

"I sat down and really did put my heart into this. I was living in Canada, smoking a lot of weed. I stopped drinking, I don't socialise, I still don't. I sat there. I thought, right, I've been in music for 15 years, let's pinpoint the reason every other band I was in didn't work out and I went the opposite way against the grain, came up with a name, the gimmick was the eyes, the topic was the church and I was like, no one has done this before. No one has ever spoke out about the Catholic Church. That's why I went for the name Meryl Streek because I didn't want a load of mad Catholics coming chasing me with pitchforks."
Streek went from years of obscurity to relevance and focus after to returning to a more open and honest Ireland and by addressing some of the social issues that had emerged in his absence. It seems as if he needed a target to vent his rage and frustration and found the perfect target in the Catholic Church. There were so many legitimate issues relating to the Catholic Church that still need to be addressed in 2022 when his debut album 796 was released - the title references the number of children's remains found in an unmarked grave adjacent to a home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, Co Galway. And this is indeed a shocking and shameful stain on an institution run by the Catholic Church that was allegedly meant to project women and children. Over decades, these infant mortalities were hidden and bodies were treated as nothing more than landfill. The Bon Secours Mother and Baby home operated from 1925 to 1961 and functioned as a baby mill with unwed mother's being coerced into giving their children up for adoption, usually in the United States. Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 discovered the 796 infants and determined that they had perished due to congenital debilities, infectious diseases and malnutrition. There has been an ongoing investigation and forensic evidence gathering that have substantiated these findings.

However, this issue seems all too convenient for a male Dubliner in his 30's to rail about on his return to Ireland. This is not to say that this issue isn't an appalling indictment of the Catholic Church and its failing in Ireland. In drawing attention to a similar scandal, Joni Mitchell wrote about the Magdelene Laundries in 1994 when knowledge of the abuse of women there was exposed. Joni's song was one of empathy and concern and one that drew attention to and validated the women that wanted their abuse acknowledged. Here, it seems like an easy cheap shot for Streek and somewhat insincere for him to avail himself of "Mother and Baby" scandal. If he has a direct connection to this issue, it is not addressed in his work.

His best known song "Death to the Landlord" is a litany of complaints that focus on the housing shortages in Ireland, politicians and conventional media. In the video, he oozes blood while sitting at a bar and confronts the bartender who seems to represents authority and wealth. Another video "If This is Life" (from early '23) presents him in a barber's shop ranting about all the material things that he hasn't got. It's slightly ironic that in both videos he is been served by other people with his needs been met by them. Perhaps I'm missing something here but there does seem be be a huge sense of entitlement on display here. His songs and videos, some might argue are designed for effect and are not be literally analyzed and dissected but there is a calculating mind at work here and actions have consequences. It is hard not to connect this rabble rousing rhetoric with the recent rioting and anti-immigration violence in Dublin. Recent immigration, particular Ukrainian refugees has added to the affordable housing crisis in Ireland and it was this anger and frustration that sparked the rioting which lead to departments stores and public transportation being ransacked in Dublin for the first time in over 50 years.

Streek's worldview may well be endorsed by John Lydon, remember his "anger is an energy" mantra but it does seem shortsighted and possibly dangerous.

The contrast in attitude and approach couldn't be clearer in the work of Nealo (Neal Keating). Friendship, love, trauma and loss are the themes he explores in his work. Since the October 2020 release of his debut All the leaves are Falling, he has garnered much praise with The Irish Times commenting that "Nealo wins by tapping into the disillusionment he shares with so many peers" and The Sunday Business Post filing it as "hip-hop that tips the hat to the coolest and most instinctive neo-jazz rhythms you'll hear outside New Orleans."

From an interview with Other Voices (December 2020) Nealo remembers:

"I was born on the first day of spring. From an early age I knew that I felt things deeply. I took losses harder than others, and carried them with me. I thought about losing people from very young. I didn't have a morbid fascination or anything, but more so a hyper emotional reaction to everything around me. The music I listened to was always a little sadder, or a little angrier. I always carried a little too much emotion into every relationship, for better and worse."
On his second album, November Medicine released last year, Nealo features collaboration with warm and vibrant musicians and he once again bears his soul. This is very much rap and hip-hop but probably not something that most hip-hop fans would initially find too familiar. There is none of the bragging and tagging that is fundamental to rap- instead, the focus is a dismantling all personal defenses and pretension. The result is a measured and soulful examination of his own faults and traumas but also his joys and the acceptance of his life and responsibilities.

Nealo ability to deal with dark subjects like divorce, depression and addiction allow him to get personal but avoid preaching. His work often sounds confessional with his spoken anecdotes bridging the music the most so and yet even the most complex of his music retains some hints of minimalism. His work is sophisticated and has evolved over time and it's great strength is that it doesn't really resemble any other act today. He has carved out his own identity, the idea of a Dublin or Irish rapper in the past almost seemed like a contradiction in terms. Rap and hip-hop being so much music of the city, it's birth place in the Bronx has infused it's DNA with the chaos, noise and energy of big city life. Dublin, even though a large city, retains much of the feel of a large town and rural Ireland almost feels like time travel to a simpler time. That Nealo had been able to adopt rap and hip-hop and make it feel both authentic and Irish is a tribute to vision and honestly. With the preponderance of autotune and programmed beats into todays hip hop, his music has more in common with De La Soul, Tribe and the Daisy Age Rap with a touch of Jay-Z throw in for good measure.

The cover of the album (see the top of the article), taken inside the beautiful Pepper Canister Church in Dublin, feature seven ghost like figures in white sheets, the same seven ghost like figures feature on the cover of the first album but this time located in a forest. These seven are presumably the seven deadly sins or possibly the seven heavenly virtues, or perhaps both. Nealo in both photographs looks skyward towards the heavens. What this all means is open to interpretation but it is certainly not trivial.

Streek ends his album with a piece 'Dad' about his father. It is the one personal note on the album, he describes his father as some unknown hero and laments his very early death at approximately 40. The track starts with "This is all for you, every bit of it" and ends with "I still look up to you, and I'll always beat the drum for you." One accolade that he uses to champion his father is that he introduced him to the obscure punk band Rudimentary Peni at an early age.

It just seems telling that Streek seeks to elevate his father to hero status and by extension his own good self too, (for surely he is cut from the same cloth) and seems unable to accept his own shortcomings and limitations.

In contrast, Nealo ends his album with "Only Human" a touching pean to his ex-wife, where he accepts the end of their marriage but calmly states "we be like family because I don't want to let you down, we'll be like family because I don't want to hurt you now." There is also a great spoken word piece on the album that sounds like he is directly addressing the listener as a good friend where he tells the embarrassing tale of borrowing his father's bike to collect the dole only to have it stolen and his father's easy-going response to it.

These two artists to my mind clearly represent opposite ends of the psychological spectrum, one is full of rage and denial and the other is accepting of his flaws and limitations but is growing, maturing and spreading joy in his world.

And these opposing perspectives seems to be playing out in real time in politics all around the world in 2024. Perhaps it is too easy to ascribe such weight to both these two artists perspectives but it is hard to shake the conviction that in an highly polarized world, we have reached a fork in the road and the choices we make this year will have a huge impact on all our futures.

On "November Medicine," the Dubliner's themes are still more introspective: divorce, depression, pain. After all, he says, "one of the most beautiful things in life is being able to transmute that hurt into something, like a song."

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