PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Sleaford Mods Kick Out the Jams and So Much More

Photo courtesy of We Care a Lot PR

Sleaford Mods' astonishing and deceptively subtle Eton Alive provides plenty of food for thought to counter the bread and circuses on offer during a time of political austerity.

Eton Alive
Sleaford Mods

Extreme Eating

22 February 2019

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.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.