Recently, the fine folks at Cokemachineglow introduced us to what I’ll call the Jamie Stewart Principle, named after Xiu Xiu’s heart-on-sleeve maestro. According to the Jamie Stewart Principle, outlined in Conrad Amenta’s great review of the latest Xiu Xiu record, Always (2012), there are certain artists for whom it just, you know, sucks to consider in terms of a record review’s numerical score. About Stewart and Xiu Xiu, Amenta writes, “Subjecting Jamie Stewart’s public catharsis to the pithy whiles of music criticism seems insensitive.” So, while his review discusses Xiu Xiu’s unique place in our musical landscape, it also discusses the difficulty of discussing that place. If a writer can be as unique—and uniquely honest—in his or her work, doesn’t it reduce that work to assign it a score of 8.7, or 78%, or 9 out of 10, or Best New Document of Sexual Exploitation and Nipple Clamps, or whatever? Thus Amenta doesn’t give Always a score.
This is just to say: that number down there is somewhat arbitrary, then. Like Xiu Xiu and Jamie Stewart, Future of the Left’s (and, formerly and gloriously, Mclusky’s) Andy Falkous possesses such a uniquely sharp, incisive voice and consistency in his material as to deserve a mulligan on the whole Dewey Decimal thing. (I’m talking about his writing voice, though his singing voice, a warped nasal squawk, is equally lovely and precious.) Falkous once famously claimed stand-up comedy as a greater influence on his songwriting than, say, songwriters, and he’s more Zach Galifianakis than Dane Cook (and if he weren’t, I’d hope you wouldn’t be reading, for Christ’s sake)—deadpan, often inscrutable, playing on discomfort for laughs more than on punchlines, though he can write a one-liner with the best of them. For a tasting menu of the Best of Andy Falkous, plate up Mclusky’s “To Hell with Good Intentions”, “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues”, and “She Will Only Bring You Happiness”, as well as Future of the Left’s “Manchasm”, “Lapsed Catholics”, and “Stand by Your Manatee”. The words will sting and charm, and the music—a stew of the nastier bits from pop, punk, metal, and all things loud—will hiss and churn as if boiling. It will be a dish all its own.
With The Plot Against Common Sense, Falkous continues to skewer targets in his indelible way, and Future of the Left continues to provide meaty, frenetic rock music behind its frontman’s yowling. The most notable change here is Falkous’ subject matter, which has moved from the abstract to the concrete in much of the material here. He skewers a good deal of pop culture fare, from trust fund liberals to trite Hollywood sequels, from London’s Olympic Games to the band t-shirt industrial complex. Opening track “Sheena Is a T-Shirt Salesman”, all teeth and nails, picks on punk’s holy forefathers, and rightfully so—surely there as many copies of that black Ramones logo t-shirt in the world as there are Kalashnikovs. Similarly, the bouncy, pop-centered “Sorry Dad, I Was Late for the Riots” calls out fair-weather activists, the ones who join the protesting crowds for a nice afternoon before retreating to “a penthouse flat in Kensington” (and featuring my favorite line of the record, “I tried to catch a cab on Camden High Street / But the driver smelled the paraffin and ran”). In other words, Falkous isn’t just shooting ducks in a barrel—the punks and the progressives are likely his bread-and-butter audience, and it will take some humility for them to laugh along with him.
Other songs, though, don’t hit quite as hard. Falkous is on record as thinking “Robocop 4—Fuck Off Robocop” is the best song, lyrically, on this album. It isn’t, though it has some wonderful lines; I won’t ruin them for you by quoting, but suffice to say Ralph Fiennes might have a new job in a cover band, if he so desires. Really, it’s the tone that seems off here. Why get so upset about Jaws 4? (It put money in Michael Caine’s tweed pockets, anyway.) If it’s tongue-in-cheek, the tongue’s just barely touching the flesh there. This track—and others, like “Failed Olympic Bid”—doesn’t seem particularly bilious for Falkous, just odd in his choice of where that bile gets spat. (Admittedly, I’m an American and have no idea whether the soccer talk in “Goals in Slow Motion” is a highlight or lowlight.)
But even if you’re not sold on every exclamation in “Robocop 4—Fuck Off Robocop,” the music—let’s not forget about that, even with a lyricist as sharp as Falkous—on Plot usually keeps things moving. “Polymers Are Forever”, possibly the album’s strongest track, combines start-stop chords with an ea -candy, almost wordless chorus from Falkous to create one of the finest pop songs in the man’s catalog. And it is his catalog. You won’t mistake it for anyone else’s, and an artist as singular as Falkous always deserves our attention.