There’s been a lot of animosity levelled towards Nervus recently, and the vast majority of it simply doesn’t feel deserved. Sure, they’ve got a social media presence that can be – to put it nicely – divisive, but that alone doesn’t justify the notions that they’ve ‘ruined punk’, or that vocalist Em Foster’s recent joining of Milk Teeth has ruined that band either (when in reality, they’re currently the strongest they’ve ever been). In no uncertain terms, Nervus are one of the bands operating today that embody the traditional punk ethos more than any other, with a platform dedicated to elevating and bringing awareness to LGBTQ+ marginalisation while keeping that hugely populist appeal intact. It was done phenomenally well last year on Everything Dies by drawing on Foster’s experiences and emotions as a transgender woman, and that doesn’t look to have changed whatsoever with Tough Crowd. The wider influences from indie-rock and Britpop have only made the melodies on its preceding singles feel even more enormous, and with a title that captures the sardonicism of a band who make no bones about being vocal in a way that will push some people’s buttons, that backbone of classic punk spirit doesn’t appear to have been dampened even remotely.
Of course, anyone bothered by that from Nervus is clearly listening to the wrong band, seeing as toning down that side of themselves has never been an idea even entertained. And it’s not even like Tough Crowd can afford to; in an increasingly volatile social and political climate, especially for marginalised groups, tackling the rampant ills feels more necessary than ever, and that forms ample ground for Nervus to once again prove themselves as one of the most conscious and socially intelligent bands capable of operating in a mainstream space. Indeed, more so than perhaps any of their previous work, Tough Crowd could, in a just world, be the album that makes this band monstrously huge, with every melody and indie-rock hook inflated to truly enormous proportions in an album that feels perfectly balanced in terms of the immediacy and potency of its execution, and the prescience of the content within.
And, like with all Nervus albums, that content is where the majority of Tough Crowd’s resonance lies, with an uncompromisingly critical nature that keeps them far apart from being just another faceless, beige Britrock band. It’s the detail that really makes it work here, mainly because it comes from a realistic viewpoint that Foster has experienced herself and that has only become heightened by current socio-political discourse, whether that’s the continual asinine ‘debates’ about trans rights on The Inconvenient Truth, or the baked-in prejudices within the police force on They Don’t. But above all, Tough Crowd takes its most precise aim at the government at the nucleus of it all – “the ghouls that haunt these halls”, as Piss puts it – that has only pushed divisive and xenophobic mindsets as prevailing ones on Engulf You and No Nations respectively, to the point where the action on Burn is more necessary than ever. There is nuance among all the rage and dejection though, particularly with Burn serving as the glimmer of hope that things can change, and for as bleak as it all looks (see the clear parallels drawn between environment catastrophe and an inclement no-deal Brexit on Where’d You Go), there’s a generation coming up that’s looking to make that change, and there’s solace that can be taken in that.
It’s the sort of resoundly powerful and unshakable message that’s always been Nervus’ M.O, but the immense populism that it fosters has always been bolstered by the paired melodies, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the songs on Tough Crowd are some of the most anthemic and colossal in the band’s catalogue to date. It’s maybe a bit more polished than previous, especially in a guitar tone that’s been slightly eased back and the chime of Paul Etienne’s keys that are more pronounced here, but that’s also largely a consequence of the aforementioned indie and Britpop tones that have been brought in that only make these songs pop even more. The sweeping, refreshingly distinct gang vocals of Flies and the squalling solo on They Don’t inject a bit more levity in that’s definitely appreciated, but the apex comes when Nervus hit the perfect, mid-paced alt-rock lilt like on I Can’t Dance, where the chunkier bass meshes effortlessly with the guitars and keys and it’s just phenomenal through and through. In reality though, Nervus barely put a foot wrong across the entirety of Tough Crowd, as there’s a versatility that definitely feels earned, but one that also feels entirely natural. Fake is probably the easiest example of a bridge between this album and their last in its scruffier, more simplistic punk mould, but there’s a solemness and coldness from giving the bass and drums the lead seat and placing Foster’s vocals so far back in the mix on Engulf You that’s hugely effective, and the expansive indie-rock of Where’d You Go that builds and builds through comfortably the longest track here emulates the tumult of its writing for a perfect closer. It all feels entirely in Nervus’ wheelhouse as well, shifting parts of the formula around to where it’s not exactly experimental, but allows fresh moments to pop up on a regular basis.
It’s why, if Nervus were to finally break through into a more mainstream scene with this album, they’d stand head and shoulders above the vast majority of their contemporaries. This is music borne out of purpose as well as designed to reach as wide an audience as possible, and Tough Crowd nails both of those goals on every front, all while being consistently evolving and engaging without having to resort to extraneous gimmickry. It’s definitely suited for huge stages, but there’s an incisiveness that feels much more weighty and relevant, and holding steady Nervus’ place in modern punk that’s unquestionably theirs to keep and own. There’s nothing about this album that’s ‘ruining punk’; if anything, Nervus are shaking it up and giving it the scope that’ll bring their platform forward, and if that doesn’t scream of one of the most consistently great and important bands around, then nothing does.
For fans of: Milk Teeth, Weatherstate, Muncie Girls
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Tough Crowd’ by Nervus is released on 27th September on Big Scary Monsters.