Novelist Ali Smith and Sleaford Mods walk into a London bar — nah, coffee house since the Mods’ James Williamson’s aboard the wagon. They place their orders, take their seats beside the storefront window, and together watch what’s left of the sidewalk ballet, which has taken a turn for the brutish. The orderly whole imagined by Jane Jacobs appears indifferent, chaotic. The eyes of passersby regard their phones, rather than one another, and crash shoulder to shoulder without apology. Smith sighs. Williamson sips from his latte and seethes.
Smith and Sleaford Mods are among the finest cultural commentators on Brexititis. In Autumn (2016) and Winter (2017), Smith maintains a sense of ambivalent magnanimity amid the foreboding. On Sleaford Mods, the new EP, Williamson shares Smith’s fondness for gleeful wordplay, but not her willful optimism. If Smith models an ethos of “keep calm and carry on”, Williamson counters with “speak loudly and carry a massive schtick”.
The opening track, “Stick in a Five and Go”, finds Williamson ignoring his kids and scanning Twitter for slights. Not surprisingly, he finds one, can’t let it go, and takes outlandish steps to even the score: “I know it sounds weird and it’s not okay / But I got a good mate at the DVLA / So I threw him some cash and I got a postcode / And a door number and a fecking road.”
Williamson, then, in a uniform bought from Royal Mail, makes his way to Leeds to deliver a package of retribution. Sound effects man Andrew Fearn counters Williamson’s aggressive paranoia with a sparse accompaniment of keyboard effects, drum loops, and unsyncopated bass riffs. Upon finding the perpetrator’s house, Williamson alerts the occupant that he’s got a signature-required delivery: “You’ve got to sign for it mate / Sign for it mate / Sign for it mate.” The lyrical repetition carries menace, and Fearn builds a deceptively dramatic tension by fading the bass riff in and out over the drum loop. The dramatic line goes slack with Williamson’s return to the A-A-A-A chorus, leaving the terms of the score to the listener’s imagination.
In a recent interview, Williamson indicates that his aggressive inclinations find expression via his lyrics and imagination. “People are powerless under the political monster,” he surmises. “If you can’t get at these people that are doing your head in; then the thing to do is take it out on the next best person that’s stood next to you.” This sentiment informs “Bang Someone Out”, the EP’s most danceable tune — if you don’t mind dancing to Williamson’s exasperation with “The righteous gobbing sincerity / and this medieval constituency.” The phrasing reveals Williamson in a new mindset: angry still, but not seething, about what material and psychological travails will descend upon the guttersnipes and more come March 2019.
“Gallows Hill” offers an homage to the typically abject subjects executed there through 1827. Today, by day, it’s a quaint cemetery. At night, it’s a darkened drug den, aided by the council’s decision to remove the street lamps. The track opens with an organ chord nicked from a Boris Karloff recording, and Fearn forges a mix from the Sleaford palette of bass and drums. (The Sleaford Mods with Soothing Strings EP has been delayed once again — ha!)
The final two tracks, “Dregs” and “Joke Shop”, find Williamson reflecting on estranged labor and personal estrangement. In “Joke Shop”, Williamson wonders what to do with friends, family, and acquaintances who can’t sort themselves out. Walk away? Make an uneasy truce? Crack them with a cricket bat?
Sleaford Mods is a solid EP and a key cultural artifact for what looks increasingly like a hard Brexit. Sleaford haters will take issue with the use of analogies and meditations in the grooves, and my suggestion that the Mods share interests with Ali Smith isn’t likely going to bolster their street cred.
“Dregs” reminds me of the Mods’ appearance in October 2015 on Later … with Jools Holland (BBC2). For “Jobseeker”, Fearn starts up the music, grabs his pint, and sways, sips, and nods behind Williamson, who plays himself and a bureaucrat trying to get Williamson off the dole. Williamson is, of course, no longer on the dole, but it’s Fearn who’s most captivating in his craft, having mastered the technology in service of his liberation. Once he presses play, Fearn steps back, brown ale in hand, rocking and nodding to a perfectly 4/4 beat. “Career Opportunities”, anyone? It’s nice work if you can get it. On this EP, Sleaford Mods get it right again.