Dean: Meryl Streek’s Avante-Punk Music Screams in Anger at the Tuam Scandal

The title of Meryl Streek’s debut album 796 refocuses attention on the number of known babies and children whose remains were buried at a mass grave at the Catholic church-run Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961 – their undignified crypt unmarked, unvisited, unacknowledged.

Around a decade since the scandal came to light, it’s still a figure that drums up anger when it’s laid out in front of you. And Streek is angry. The Dublin avant-punk musician returns time and again to the tragedy throughout the project, released last November, ensuring his fury hits every deserving target.

Opening track “The Start” takes jittering, abrasive electronic music and cuts in news clips reporting on various church scandals. The final piece of audio is from an international news report on Tuam. For Ireland, this was a shame that went global.

“The Start” segues into “Full of Grace”, its title inevitably ironic. Over guitars that thrash, we hear Streek’s voice, heavily accented and full of venom. As though speaking directly to the clergy, he twists a familiar prayer: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you to apologise for your sins and let grieving families across the country find peace.” There are even some undisguised threats (we don’t condone): “And if you come face to face with me, you’ll wish grieving was all you could do.”

Unfortunately for anyone in a clerical collar, promo photos of Streek tend to obscure his face, so they may not know exactly who to look out for.

Streek returns to the topic of making amende honorable on single “False Apologies”, a song that addresses Bon Secours head on and how he deems the contrition shown by the church to be vapid and insufficient. And on the excellent title track, he breaks down the statistics of how many children died at the home by year – a startling 52 in 1947, for example. So much of 796 is laying out the tragic conditions of Bon Secours with stark clarity, so we don’t lose sight of the inhumanity.

Streek is an interesting figure to attempt such a project. His true identity remains a mystery, though he has revealed some biographical details about himself. From Dublin, Streek comes from a working class family of independent screen printers. Seeing his own opportunities limited, he took the well-trodden path out of Ireland for what would become a seven-year detour to Canada. “Seeing how countries work outside of Ireland, and seeing how unfair Ireland’s work ethic and living situations are, I came back here fueled to try and make a change,” the artist said in press notes.

Streek’s dad was a punk-rock drummer and his son followed him into the vocation. After spending 15 years paying dues by working with various artists and bands, he began working on the music that would become 796. Weed and late nights were partial inspiration.

After a year of work, Streek took what he had home to Ireland, and alongside producer Dan Doherty, whose client list includes Fontaines D.C., started recording the vocals. The final result is an album that blends elements of punk, electronica, spoken word, and metal. There are little musical Easter eggs here and there: the title track, for example, begins with peppy horns that could serve as the theme music to a 1970s American sitcom. But while his performance is aggressive, Streek’s music maintains an enticing dream-like quality. At different times there are angelic voices, ambient synth lines, majestic strings. 796 provides soothing counterpoints to the horrors within.

There are other thematic beats than Catholic shame. “Death to the Landlord” attacks not just the broken rental system, but homelessness, gentrification, politicians, far-right ghouls, and anyone who claims Tayto is better than King. Over a grimy post-punk instrumental, Streek prefixes his lyrics with the words “Say no to” (Example: “Say no to living in a tent and being happy with it”). It invokes the sentiment of Irvine Welsh’s “Choose life” monologue from his book Trainspotting, making contemporary Dublin analogous to the economically depressed area of late 1980s Edinburgh.

Streek has revealed that his father died by suicide in 2009 and is honored in the songs “Suicide”, which depicts fraying mental health, and the highly personal “Dad”. A spoken-word album that addresses death makes Streek comparable to For Those I Love, the Choice Music Prize-winning performer. But 796 is something different, something less philosophical but more graphic, equally deserving of acclaim.

“We’re talking about lives,” Streek says on the song “796”. Because we can get desensitized to horrors on such a huge scale, he is here, to help stop it slipping from consciousness.

796 is out now via Venn Records. Meryl Streek plays Whelan’s on 30 March.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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