Long in the tooth but not without vitality, Mark E. Smith and the Fall are predictable, but satisfactory, on their new album
Across four decades and over 30 albums, Mark E. Smith, the only constant member of the Fall throughout its many incarnations, has remained remarkably consistent. His lyrics are as odd in 2015 as they were back in 1979, his off-beat vocal style has remained largely unchained, and, for better or worse, when one listens to a new album from the Fall one knows, more or less, exactly what to expect. In this respect, Sub-Lingual Tablet is a perfectly satisfactory release from the current version of the group, and it stands quite well on its own musical merits; yet, especially in lieu of Smith's work outside of the Fall -- such as his Von Südenfed project (a 2007 collaboration with German electronic outfit Mouse on Mars), or his left-field guest spot on the 2009 Gorillaz LP Plastic Beach -- the consistency shown on Tablet seems a bit more like complacency.
It is quite telling that the only real musical surprise to be found on Tablet comes with the off-putting "Black Roof", as its particularly menacing onslaught of harsh synthesizers and dissonant noise are provided by Rob Barbato and Tim Presley of Los Angeles psych-rock outfit Darker My Love (both former members of the Fall making a temporary return) instead of the band that plays on the rest of the songs. The rest of the album is dominated by that which the Fall has made their bread and butter for decades, with the uptempo drums and chugging basslines still as fun as ever (albeit not nearly as fresh), but on that one piece of twisted anti-pop, the possibility of something far more intriguing shines through. Its presence provides the suggestion of something new and different, but the rest of the album more or less ignores it.
The other major frustration one comes across on Tablet is that of its lyrical subject matter. As anyone who has ever heard the Fall before knows, Mark E. Smith's lyrics are abstract to an extreme, with his drawling, heavily accented delivery making already-abstract lyrics that much more difficult to decipher. Why this is particularly frustrating in the case of Sub-Lingual Tablet is that the album teases the possibility of a look at contemporary culture through the eyes of a man who was ranting about the music scene as far back as the late '70s. Yet, the most coherent messages one can find throughout the album are that Smith thinks prescription drugs are overprescribed and isn't particularly fond of smartphones. The title is a similar non-starter; whether the "sub-lingual tablet" is a drug, a portable computer, or something else entirely is, like Smith's lyrics more or less always have been, a complete mystery.
That second frustration, however, is something of a matter of course when dealing with the Fall, and the first can actually be an asset. Sub-Lingual Tablet sounds truly timeless, in the sense that its songs quite honestly sound like they could have come from any period of the band's long history. The airtight grooves on "Dedication Not Medication" are a particular highlight; bassist Dave Spurr easily provides the majority of the group's best moments, and "Dedication" is his time to shine. While not sounding particularly dated by any stretch of the imagination, the music on Tablet certainly has been unaffected by any outside trends in the world of music - if anyone was, for whatever reason, expecting for find out what Mark E. Smith's take on EDM would sound like, they won't find it here. And, really, there's nothing wrong with anything on Tablet, simply that Smith has been doing the same thing for so long that one starts to wonder what he might be able to do if he set his sights a little higher.