Political Stiff Little Fingers try on introspection
In 2008 Jake Burns was scheduled to record a new album with his band, the seminal punk-rock outfit Stiff Little Fingers. But he faced a hard fact as he listened to the demos he'd made for the album: the songs weren't very good.
"They were the sort of thing that I could have written when I was 20 if I was just kind of bashing songs out," says the Irish-born singer, songwriter and guitarist. "It felt like I was writing a Stiff Little Fingers record by numbers, almost… So I went back to the band and said, 'Look, apart from one or two small ideas here, this doesn't sound like a record written by a 50-year-old. I think I should be writing better songs.'"
Burns scrapped almost the entire album and took his time writing a new batch of songs, eventually resulting in last year's "No Going Back," Stiff Little Fingers' first studio album since 2003. The band will play Thursday at Saint Andrew's Hall. Although Stiff Little Fingers is best-known for its outspoken political lyrics, Burns is unusually introspective and emotionally revealing in some of the new songs.
He describes the new tune "My Dark Places" as a "coping mechanism" for his divorce and the death of his mother, which happened within three years of each other. Burns says he never intended for the song to be heard publicly, but Stiff Little Fingers bassist Ali McMordie heard Burns' demo of the song and insisted that the band play it.
"He said, 'Look, it isn't just you,'" Burns says. "'You said you wanted to write songs about being 50 years old. This happens to so many f---ing people when they get to this stage of their life. They've lived a life, they've got regrets and you'll find a lot more people who are in the same boat as you are than you'd think.' And he was right. It's probably the one song I've ever written that's gotten such a response."
But Burns certainly still has politics on the brain as well. On "Since Yesterday Was Here," he catalogs social struggles from miners' strikes to Occupy Wall Street, singing "It looks to me like nothing's changed / Since yesterday was here."
Over 35 years after the release of "Inflammable Material," the band's classic screed against life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Burns says the seemingly cyclical nature of the social issues he speaks out against can be "disheartening."
"If I had the answers I'd be a politician," he says. "I'd try and fix this stuff. I don't have the answers, but what I can do is keep putting it back on the table no matter how much they'd like to sweep it underneath it."
Nearly four decades since Stiff Little Fingers got its start, Burns says his lyrical honesty and modest lifestyle have helped keep him well-connected to his audiences. Last year fans completely bankrolled the production of "No Going Back" within 12 hours of the band opening a campaign on the music crowdfunding website PledgeMusic.
"We've never achieved the level of success that a U2 has, where by the very nature of the thing you can't live the same life as somebody who fixes sinks for a living," Burns says. "We always have managed to do that."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Stiff Little Fingers
7:30 p.m. Thursday
Saint Andrew's Hall
431 E. Congress, Detroit