Disaster impends The Fall. Worse than the usual shuffling shake-up of members or spontaneous tour truncation, an absolute catastrophe awaits punk’s last lone standing band of any repute or relevance. With the group coming up fast on 29 years of uncompromising cantankery and bristling brilliance, the severity of this imminent calamity might make their unfathomable pearl jubilee that much more unimaginable. Still somehow The Fall will rise up and again surpass unparalleled rock and roll milestones. They will carry on as always, at the very verge of collapse and victoriously claiming failure over fortuity.
This is the way of The Fall: every success begets a setback setting the stage for resurgence that implodes into acclaim all over again. The greater the triumph, the more certain and dire the defeat. Their looming undoing then demands an antecedent of ascendancy. This most recent portent of prosperity is that Fall Heads Roll is impossibly, wickedly, and even unnecessarily superlative. It’s not just the latest record from The Fall, it’s the latest greatest record from The Fall. Rather than just another ministration to the faithful like Shift-Work or Levitate, Fall Heads Roll resounds with the same kind of incongruous charm that ingratiated newcomers with The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall or The Unutterable.
Such an accomplishment was preceded by the accustomed cycle of tragedy and victory. The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click) was a smashing recovery over the dingy din of Are You Are Missing Winner but turned up stateside almost a year later in an inferior albeit appended iteration. A storming but unfortunately final Peel Session followed and again raised expectations. The untimely passing of John Peel focused even more attention on the group he dared call his favorite, but any unintended legacy on the part of their most notable fan was quickly spoiled by the seemingly insensitive buffoonery of The Fall’s indomitable figurehead, Mark E. Smith. Opinions of the band were brought down further with intolerably lackluster Interim. Compiling impotent takes on unfinished tracks, the stopgap teaser failed even against the standard of ever-expanding unofficial releases plaguing the group’s discography.
Into all this arrives Fall Heads Roll. Opening with “Ride Away”, Smith and The Fall make it quite clear they have nothing to prove. The song is a loping cowpunk plod evoking the same amateur spirit of the band’s early years. Over the slow stuttering gallop, Smith reiterates his position on critics claiming “when you accuse me, you’re talkin’ ‘bout yourself” while taunting “you think you’re giant, don’t you know son / you’re talking to yourself / and no one else.” Stridently offhanded, the track impresses only in that the band appears so apathetic in their delivery. Their message is made clear: they are The Fall and thereby aloof and above all reproach.
That smarmy introduction isn’t so much a surprise given the notorious curmudgeon at its center, but what follows is an unexpected storm of cocksure confidence and swagger. Locked down tight on drums and bass, “Pacifying Joint” drives on with synth stabs and Smith at play over the relentless rhythm. That refreshing irreverence carries on into “What About Us” with Smith getting absolutely elastic with his garbled gibberish intro on into his punchy and impassioned outro. “Blindness” finds him almost scat singing along to the dexterous beat before the throbbing bass outruns him on an upper registry slide.
All throughout the band behind him sounds vigorous and vital. Guitars burn and charge through as bass growls below and synths saw in on heavy hitting downbeats. Infectious energy pervades every manic repetition.
It’s not all uncontrollable fury though. Fall Heads Roll also features some more meditative and even congenial moments. “Midnight Aspen” and its subsequent reprise contrast the riotous tracks with alternately melodic and driving bass underscoring arpeggiated guitar. Spotted with Smith’s cryptic emanations, the work assumes both mysterious and whimsical connotations. The quietly contemplative “Early Days of Channel Fuhrer” takes those impulses even further with its somber ruminations on snow-covered streets. Although uncommon this more subdued side of The Fall is far from unprecedented. These tracks share a lineage with other indiosyncratically skewed takes on sentimentality like Extricate‘s “Bill is Dead” or “I’m Going to Spain” from The Infotainment Scam.
Numerous other allusions to past madness abound elsewhere on the album. Quoting the refrain from Extricate‘s “Chicago Now”, “Blindness” has Smith snarling “Do you work hard?” “Bo D” paraphrases “Enigrammatic Dream” from his Smith’s solo effort The Post Nearly Man with its famous speculations on moderninity. The distorted and out of context tape snippet at the onset of “What About Us” makes for a familiar intro and “Clasp Hands” brings back that peculiar groove called Mancabilly. “Ya Wanner” instead opts for the more forward assault of “Jim’s ‘The Fall’” from Are You Are Missing Winner.
Even with these insular references to previous works, Fall Heads Roll sounds more like the work of an emerging artist than it does an established band catering to a core audience. Anyone who was ever to have any affinity for The Fall and even those who never will cannot refuse the engrossing volatility or inspired weirdness that makes this record so instantaneously enjoyable. All that makes this probably the best and thusly the worst possible time to be a Fall fan. Enjoy it while it lasts as the admittedly self-destructive Smith surely has some embarrassing undoing in store to subvert this triumph. This then is the very essence of The Fall as famously pegged by John Peel: always different, always the same.