It’s very possible to overthink what Sleaford Mods are doing at the same time that is equally possible to underestimate them. This tension can be kind of exhausting, but finding a middle ground can also uncover a fascinating intersection of subculture and geopolitics. Eton Alive seems to capture some of that part of the Zeitgeist on this, somewhat incredibly, their tenth album, released on their own newly established label after a brief dalliance with Rough Trade, making them even more fiercely independent than perhaps the fiercest independent label there has ever been.
It might help to get a couple of things out of the way first. For example, what are they like? Ultimately Sleaford Mods are sui generis, which is part of their not inconsiderable charm, but it’s also possible to trace a through-line of influences from both sides of the Atlantic that lead us all the way to the heart of the East Midlands of England. The British forebears of the Sleaford sound might reasonably include West Midlands comrades the Specials and their blend of politics you could dance to, along with the spoken word-hip hop picaresque of Mike Skinner’s the Streets. To that, you might want to add a healthy dose of Mark E. Smith’s jaded surrealism passed through a Krautrock filter, and perhaps a soupçon of the agitprop-era output from the Jam, of which “Eton Rifles” is the most obvious reference point for class antagonism in a popular music setting. On the other side of the ocean, one would have to mention the influences Jason Williamson has himself acknowledged, including Wu-Tang Clan and, for the purposes of Eton Alive, what he described in pre-album release interviews as 1980s soul, and some of that flavor is hiding in plain sight on several of the songs here.
This naturally leads to another set of issues to ponder, and that surrounds the extent to which Sleaford Mods are indeed a political band, as distinct from (or bound up with) their idiosyncratic, indirect, and possibly quite personal form of social observation that ultimately constitutes a form of brutalist outsider art music. It would be all too easy just to repeat “Brexit” over and over again and leave it at that, and indeed their previous album English Tapas (2017) was widely characterized as a “Brexit album”. But even so, how many Brexit albums can you make, and doesn’t that overlook a lot of other interesting things that might be happening at the same time? To be sure, it would be more than reasonable to describe this album, the late 2018 self-titled EP and the aforementioned English Tapas as a Brexit soundtrack. Make no mistake, they have had, and continue to have, plenty of agitprop moments. It just seems worth asking if there’s more to them than that, and more pleasure that can be derived from them than just presenting them as the carnival barkers to what is already a political sideshow.
Furthermore, there are several initially off-putting aspects to the Sleaford Mods, namely the lack of immediate musicality and Williamson’s somewhat impenetrable accent and dialect for those listening from farther afield. However, like the dearly departed Mark E. Smith, the timbre and the delivery and the impenetrability itself taken all together become part of the effect and the appeal. In different times Sleaford Mods would have been a punk band (one might argue that they still are, deadenders at a party that has long since had its best moments, commenting bitterly and hilariously on the personal and social wreckage that come as a consequence of not knowing whether to leave or to stay – Brexit pun intended). The combination of Andrew Fearn’s musical minimalism and Jason Williamson’s lyrical maximalism is, then, the setting for all of this preambular over-determination, and the tension and interplay between those two things make for a perfect storm in this particular cultural moment.
Eton Alive is, in fact, tremendous fun, and tremendously funny, without ever coming across as a novelty turn. At the same time that there is an underlying tone of sinister threat that never fully materializes into an all-out assault. For all the larger-than-life cartoonishness that Williamson’s vocal persona might suggest, this is a remarkably subtle and nuanced experience, both musically and lyrically. The opening bassline of first track “Into the Payzone” does indeed kind of recall Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good”, Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” and Luther Vandross’ “Creepin'”, all at once, all while being slightly out of reach. These are familiar references, at the same time that they are also slightly hard to pin down completely, and the same can be said for a lot of Williamson’s lyrical moves.
But whereas the musical references might be somewhat traceable (“Ice Ice Baby” on “Kebab Spiders” and Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” on “O.C.B.T”, for example), Williamson’s lyrical traces are rather more fully kicked over, so we have to infer through his indirection some of his subject matter and his targets. This seems rather clearly to be an album about the facile vacuity of our current moment (“Kebab Spider”), masculinity (“Firewall”), consumerism (“Into the Payzone”), and the cultural wastelands that we largely inhabit currently (passim), but there is rarely a direct statement to any of those effects, which makes the listening experience all the more elusive but also all the more satisfying. Williamson isn’t telling us so much as he is showing us, and in this respect, he most resembles Mark E. Smith and his singular lyrical indirection. These lyrics seem to be encoded to the point of impenetrability, but they can still be enjoyed without a decoder or a concordance.
The music itself is indeed largely bass driven, as the opening track establishes, and there is something almost luxurious in Andrew Fearn’s singular dedication to this sound. The unfettered bass on “Flipside” and “Subtraction,” for example, are wild punk and post-punk moments that allow Williamson’s verbal flow to ride atop them, while the more languid but no less insistent bass on “Policy Cream” provide acres of space for Williamson to vent (“Sit down! Just shut up! I’ll talk. No, you just sit down. I’ll talk!”) about the Valhalla where so many of us currently reside: “Voice your thoughts / Near big black gates / On bed of rose near bricks and gates / To the sound of nothing / As it breaks the spell / There’s no witchcraft here / It’s just fucking hell.”
This combination of juddering bass and stuttering lyrical vitriol may feel rather alienating to a listener, but that might be because the album’s subject matter is partly alienation itself. However, there are moments of surprising beauty here too, which is how an alienated life can feel – we take our seconds of pleasure and our moments of sublimity where we find them. “O.B.C.T” and “When You Come Up to Me”, for example, find Williamson almost singing, and Fearn almost picking out a keyboard riff. About 2:45 into “Subtraction” there’s a surprisingly pretty and haunting keyboard chord that just floats in before the song fades out as if a crack of blue sky appeared on an otherwise beige Brexit day. This immediately precedes “Firewall”, which provides a relatively delicate keyboard figure to accompany a lyric about emotional barriers. These are the moments when Eton Alive lets us in, lets down its guard and shows us a deeply humane core beneath the acerbic crust that one might assume was the essence of the band.
It seems that so many of these songs live in the interstices of other cultural products. These aren’t songs so much as they are sounds that are aware of other songs; they aren’t stories so much as they are brief barks of commentary that speak to a suspicion of narrative, as Williamson himself pointed out in an interview here in February. As Williamson said at the time, “all these messages that come through the TV, the bleakness, it’s just editing. It’s a narrative, you know what I mean. And you get suspicious as well.”
It might, therefore, be a mistake to make Williamson a spokesman for a generation or a cultural moment when he may, after all, be making elliptical personal commentaries from the sidelines rather than grand (albeit obscure) pronouncements about social justice, cultural stereotypes, and our collectively toxic anomie. This is not to defuse or negate or decontextualize the potential social and political content and force of these songs, but perhaps to say instead that there may be another way into them that will lead you to those political places through indirection. And it might also be to say that Sleaford Mods are neither a polemical band or an art-rock construct, but that they might exist somewhere between the Specials and the Fall on the popular culture continuum.
There is tension here (there are all kinds of tensions here, let’s face it) between engagement and disengagement, between music and its lack, between telling stories and lobbing barbs. The closing track, “Negative Script”, seems to encapsulate everything that the album has been about. Williamson once again comes close to singing, while telling us something about what he doesn’t really want to tell us: “I favored being out of it / But I got tricked by my tiny mind / I didn’t want to sit here / And loosen up to a rhythm I thought was tight / I still want to be rid of it / I favor being dumb / I don’t want an awakening / I don’t believe in fun / I favored being out of it / But I got tricked by my tiny mind.”
This is a kind of poetry, and a kind of beauty, after all. Brexit (let us look forward to the day when we no longer have to speak of this blight) may be this album’s context and its backdrop but what we might be getting here is ultimately a form of contemporary elegiac lyricism rather than full-fledged social polemic. Perhaps that is a more useful and rewarding reference and access point for this remarkable piece of work.