A thumbnail sketch of Britain’s state in 2021 will provide a useful entrée into the quite brilliant new Sleaford Mods album, Spare Ribs. As Cornish fishermen and women complain that their catch is being left to rot on docksides due to Brexit red tape, and the Scottish fishing industry appears to be facing a “perfect storm”, according to recent reporting from the United Kingdom, the bumbling elites responsible for this mess continue to perform like cartoon villains, but with genuine consequences for their victims. When questioned about this particular debacle in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s departure from the European Union at the beginning of 2021, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons and inveterate buffoon, had this to say about the situation, according to a report in Britain’s Independent newspaper:
“What is happening is that the government is tackling this issue, dealing with it as quickly as possible, and the key thing is we’ve got our fish back,” Rees-Mogg said. “They’re now British fish, and they’re better and happier fish for it.” At which point, the Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, intervened and said: “Obviously, there’s no overwhelming evidence for that.”
This little sketch summarizes in miniature the backdrop against which Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson are working and have been working for quite a while. The Conservative party has been in power in Britain in one form or another since 2010. For most of that time, as the country has corroded, lurching from austerity to what now seems like the inevitable twinned tragedies of Brexit and the catastrophically incompetent handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Sleaford Mods have been horrified and coruscating witnesses to their era. While Sleaford Mods have existed as a going concern since 2007, the current incarnation dates back to Fearn’s arrival as a band member in 2012. But while they have been chroniclers of national decline, their work has grown ever richer and more sophisticated both lyrically and musically. And so we arrive at the present moment, and Spare Ribs, the band’s 11th studio album, which is dizzying in its layered complexity.
Before we bury the lede, let’s be sure to say from the outset that Spare Ribs is perhaps the band’s high watermark, a searing masterpiece of social commentary, childhood memories and recovered trauma, scathing wit, punk energy, funk, and hip-hop influences, and much more. This is a record with no fat and no filler. Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson are absolutely at the top of their respective games here, and in uncanny lockstep between Fearn’s woozy and unsettling soundscapes and the high-wire act of Williamson’s breathtaking and excoriating lyricism. The whole thing is a relentless and immaculate dissection of contemporary British life that never lets the listener up for air or off the hook. In short, this should be a required text for our times, and there is so much happening at once that it’s as hard to imagine how they keep all of these balls in the air as it is for the listener to assimilate all of the codes, signals, and references that Fearn and Williamson unload on us here.
But before we jump into the embarrassment of riches that is Spare Ribs, it seems important to address, briefly, a major modus operandi of the Sleaford Mods canon because it might help to unlock the often cryptic nature of their work. A brief attempt at a modest user’s manual might serve to encourage a wary listener, otherwise deterred from delving into this album or, indeed, their scintillating back catalog. For Sleaford Mods appear to work very often through paradox. If we go in with this nugget of information, we might be better able to hold multiple paradoxes in equilibrium simultaneously and thus wonder more adequately at the feats they are performing, both here and elsewhere.
The first paradox to take on board is that while the Sleaford Mods’ sound might seem sparse, it is actually surprisingly rich, dense, and complex, as layers of small sounds accumulate to achieve a much bigger sound. And while the sounds might appear to leave or to create a lot of white space, the overall effect isn’t necessarily spacious, so that the cumulative impact of these songs is also suffocating. So this album ultimately feels airtight, if not airless, as a figure for the zeitgeist, it is depicting.
In connection to the first paradox, one might underestimate Sleaford Mods as unsophisticated amateurs, both musically and lyrically. That may not be so much a paradox as a false impression. Jason Williamson’s lyrics are much more poetic than they are mere disaffected ranting. Andrew Fearn’s beats and backing tracks are much more sophisticated and intricate than mere cheap DIY bedroom sounds. Those twinned veneers are more of an affect than a mode, and they serve to draw the listener into a deceptively complex world and worldview.
Furthermore, while so much of their output might appear to be dystopian and despairing, outraged and caustic, they are also not as jeremiadic as you might first think, while they’re also more serious than they might seem. Serious social commentary and scathing humor live side by side here, sometimes in the same line, almost always in the same song. In this way, the band keep the listener constantly off-balance and on guard. Humor turns to darkness, bile to tenderness, and vice-versa, and back again, all on a dime, and repeatedly.
It’s also important to say that this work is far more than just agitprop, although the band clearly come out of a punk ethos borne out by the confrontational nature of Williamson’s lyrical style. At the same time, Andrew Fearn has a deeply-ingrained pop sensibility, and Williamson’s lyrics grow ever richer and his targets are many and various. What feels like one-dimensional music is astonishingly well-rounded and eclectic. For example, you could foreground the social and political content and do a disservice to the art, or you could find them to be only a novelty band and focus just on the lyrical wit while missing out on the political or personal heft of the songs, and so on.
There is always a feint or a misdirection that leaves you somehow in the dust and in their wake. The trick achieved by the band and the challenge posed to the listener is to keep all of these competing forces in equilibrium and to embrace the maelstrom that contains all of these elements at once. So while it might be easy to underestimate Sleaford Mods, musically, vocally, lyrically, just as it’s easy to try to read too much into Jason Williamson’s gnostic and gnomic verbal torrent, they take advantage of that underestimation and sneak any number of surprises into their songs, living in the interstices. That’s appropriate for a band that speak for the margins if perhaps no longer quite as much from them as they become more successful.
Then, for all the atomization that Spare Ribs depicts, this is actually a kind of contemporary folk music that speaks of and to a community (if not for – it never presumes to do that), even though that community might be protean, fractured, ragged and exhausted. The increasing audience that Sleaford Mods is developing and the fact that their planned tour for this album (pandemic allowing) is growing into significantly larger venues indicates that the community is coming to the band as much as the band is reaching out to the community.
What is more, Fearn and Williamson are actively creating and fostering a community of artists around them, as evidenced by the guest appearances here from Billy Nomates (aka Tor Maries), who provides vocals on “Mork N Mindy”, Amy Taylor of Amyl and the Sniffers, who appears on “Nudge It”, and Nottingham academic Lisa Mackenzie who provides the voiceover to begin “Top Room”. It is no accident, either, that all of the guests on this album are strong women with powerful voices, whether they be artist or academic. This also forces us to take another look at the album’s title, with all of its feminist freight (Spare Rib was a second-wave feminist public that was extant between the 1970s and the 1990s), and recognize that the band is cultivating an intentional community both within its own cohort and, one hopes, in an audience that might previously have been predominantly male.
And, almost finally, while American listeners might be baffled by Williamson’s dialect or his encoded argot, you should know that it might well be the same for British listeners too. That’s much in the same way that Mark E. Smith spoke in riddles but was adored by his fans, even if they didn’t quite know exactly what he was talking about. Williamson’s voice is, eventually, an entrancing instrument of broad and thick East Midlands inflection (where it used to be more of a vehicle for his lyrical onslaught), and his lyrics are surreal and abstract, while they are also aimed quite precisely at his targets. The double movements at work here are astonishingly complex and effective. This is music that benefits immeasurably from repetition, and while the music and the vocals might themselves feel repetitive and monotonous, that is also the point and the effect.
Finally, while an enormous amount is going on here, much of it simultaneously, Sleaford Mods, perhaps surprisingly given all of the context this work requires, don’t agonize over their creation unduly. In yet another paradox, this work is clearly crafted with care, both musically and lyrically. Still, the band are also intent on not being precious about their process or overthinking it. In a recent interview with The Book of Man website, Andrew Fearn says of Spare Ribs that, “because we work quite fast, we just boshed it out like we usually do. But there is a lot of pre-work. I’ll send Jason the music, and he’ll write the lyrics to it and put the ideas to it.” He goes on to say that “We live in an instant world, so I think if you do anything too laboured in music, I think it shows.”
With that lengthy preambular primer out of the way, let’s begin our tour of this album’s almost incalculable riches in earnest. Opening track “The New Brick” serves as a brief prelude to the album proper. It immediately introduces a nearly overwhelming amount of information and influences that set the tone for what is to come. It also opens with the misdirection of Jason Williamson’s welcoming “Hey!” This is described in the press kit as the “persona” of “circus master. That seems almost Brechtian in its performativity, offering a kind of false bonhomie that is immediately undercut by the grotesquerie and the ennui that the song goes on to express, as ” we’re all so Tory tired, and beaten by minds so small”.
Williamson’s voice on this track, and intermittently throughout, draws on English folk music, plaintive and keening, almost elegiac, while at the same time harking back to the music hall tradition (what the American listener would know as vaudeville). This in turn reminds one, if one is so disposed, of the opening to another classic album, The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths, whose “Take me back to dear old Blighty” turned out not to be a nostalgic turn but a sardonic prelude to an album devoted to iconoclasm and, at least in the first instance, regicide.
At the same time that Williamson is drawing us in with his hail-fellow-well-met ringmaster bravado, Andrew Fearn’s introductory synth figure initially recalls the genius of Vince Clarke, an alumnus of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, and more latterly Erasure. Meanwhile that the skittish beat in turn comes out of yet another register, drawing on grime and hip-hop, as another rug is offered for us to stand on and then also immediately pulled out from under our feet. All of this adds up to the irresistible mélange that characterizes the album as a whole, steeped in English and American traditions, and a host of musical genres from folk to punk to funk to hip-hop and rap. But it also speaks to a skittishness, a restlessness, and a series of brilliantly wrought paradoxes which we have already previewed.
Because for all of those influences and references, allusions, and gestures that feel both familiar and alien, the band and the album are, ultimately, sui generis. Indeed, in a YouTube special production, SMtv, made to coincide with the album release, interviewer Paul Stokes stumbles upon a perfect description of the genre Sleaford Mods have single-handedly invented: UK Grim, which the band, particularly Williamson, uproariously embrace, while explaining that the sparseness of their sound also accurately encapsulates the bleak grimness of British life in the 1980s when Williamson was growing up. What we have here, in essence, is a lyrical form of expressionism set against a backdrop of vertiginous beats and musical figures. All of that combines to forge a new kind of folk music for the current dire and somehow ever-worsening moment.
The scene having been set with the slightly daunting density and complexity of “The New Brick”, the album proceeds to embark upon a fascinating odyssey through the many strata, interstices, and margins of British life, never once letting up its focus or its pressure on our attention. The singles, with which you might already be familiar, “Mork N Mindy”, “Nudge It”, and “Shortcummings”, fit in seamlessly with their ten companion tracks. But what is interesting about these three songs, in particular, is that they encapsulate the range of the larger album’s interests.
With “Shortcummings”, we see the political excoriation of the ruling class, a tiny-minded, self-interested cabal of morally bankrupt grifters, hypocrites, bullies, and blowhards. The title is a play on the name of an erstwhile senior government advisor, Dominic Cummings, whose greatest claim to fame, apart from his sinister weirdness and the fact that he held an unelected position with unfeasibly large influence (and increasingly large salary) for a significant period, was that he broke the COVID lockdown to visit his wife’s very wealthy family, followed by an utterly implausible explanation that smacked of privilege compounded by the kind of cavalier arrogance that mimicked the insouciance of, say Marie Antoinette or, perhaps closer to home, the entitlement and tone-deafness we have seen from actors like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner over these past few nauseating years.
Public outrage predictably ensued, along with the equally predictable lack of consequences for a member of the breathtakingly entitled elite. Cummings’ departure from the government came, also inevitably, when it was strongly suggested that he was briefing against his own boss, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to the press. If you’ve seen political satire in such television shows as The Thick of It, this kind of behavior will be all too familiar, and “Shortcummings” feels of a piece with such clinical skewerings of the mighty and the powerful, and once the skewer bursts the bubble of illusion under which we’ve been laboring, we realize, without any pleasure but a wry smile of recognition, how small these previously mighty people actually are, both in body and soul. And so Cummings and his ilk are dispatched, with characteristic ruthlessness, by Williamson’s rapier tongue.
With “Nudge It” (and “Elocution”, which follows immediately after) Williamson takes aim at a different kind of bankruptcy, as he lobs withering barbs at some of his (unnamed) contemporaries for their “class tourism”, “ticking boxes with the subjects for political scores”. Some of this content may or may not be about Williamson’s back and forth with Bristol band Idles, whose class bona fides he has questioned in the recent past.
And with “Mork N Mindy”, we revisit a weird and alienated childhood scene, which starts out in the mischief of sexual awakening and ends up in bleak abjection “on a really depressing cul-de-sac”. And here, in this short sampling of the album’s riches, we have Sleaford Mods ethos and their modus operandi almost in toto. There is political satire. There is a critique of the music scene in which the band operate but from which they feel distant. There is a deeply rooted childhood psychological trauma rooted not just in poverty but in strife, which is revisited multiple times through the album. Taken altogether, this is a heady mix of raw ingredients from which to draw, and it takes an enormous amount of skill to keep all of those ingredients in equilibrium through the course of an entire album, but they manage all of this with consummate aplomb.
The other thing to notice about these three songs, standing in for the album as a whole as they do, is that they also oscillate between interior and exterior settings, from domestic drudgery to ventures into the outside world in the immediate environs of the home, and then to wider social and political settings. In this dynamic is mirrored the twinned scourges of Brexit and COVID, where populations are confined by the massed forces of economic isolation, pandemic lockdown, and sundry other geopolitical pressures, while we dream of past and future liberations from our currently pinched circumstances, whether physical, economic, political, psychic, emotional, or spiritual.
We exist, downtrodden in this abjection, this “warm milkshake of nowhere” as “Glimpses” so perfectly has it, and we seek whatever figurative escape we can from its strictures. And this is where Fearn’s woozy musical figures and Williamson’s subversive Rabelaisian lyrical and vocal energy, searing the edges of hegemony and dominant culture while appearing to clown around, come together to provide both a withering social critique, a riveting cinematic and aural experience, and, perhaps surprisingly, a rollicking good time in the face of all that misery, simultaneously. It’s a highwire act that is brilliantly accomplished.
That oscillation between interior and exterior locales, between the interiority of physical and mental confinement, and the outside world of the cul-de-sac, the shops, or the wider world of the country as a whole and the European Union from which Britain is currently beating an unseemly retreat against almost all reason, is figured in some of the album’s finest songs, where Fearn and Williamson combine for successive and powerful one-two punches of music and lyrics. “Out There” and “Top Room”, for example, are tours de force, standout tracks on an album of standout tracks and they work in glorious counterpart with each other, separated and connected by the brilliant bridge song “Glimpses.” This trilogy of songs feels like the heart of the album in the same way that the three singles give you a perfect summary of the album’s general tenor and focus.
“Out There” sees our narrator venturing out from lockdown during not only Covid but also in the maelstrom of Brexit, and it turns out that the outside world is every bit as suffocating as the confinement from which he has just escaped. Against an ominous aural backdrop, our protagonist comes across all manner of parsimony and prejudice, addiction and abjection, discovering that he doesn’t want to talk to any of these people, albeit in the form of “6 ft. conversation”. We drift off into memories of an earlier time when travel and society were free and uncomplicated, retreating once again into interiority and self-isolation as the outside world proves to be much less alluring than it seemed from the prison cell of our quarantine. There seems to be literally no escape, whether at home or abroad.
“Glimpses” is another exemplary song that demonstrates the way the band work, providing a series of Williamson’s lyrical snapshots against the backdrop of Fearn’s twitchy magpie sound collages. The surrealism of each of their styles meshes perfectly together, and it’s as if “Glimpses” almost serves as an instruction manual within the album for what Sleaford Mods are about and how we might usefully listen to them to get the most out of their songs. It is also worth noting that as the band evolves, Williamson’s gnostic and gnomic lyrics move ever closer to genuine prose poetry, and Fearn’s musical figures, beat, and basslines grow ever richer and more sophisticated. In both of these collaborators, there is a thickening and a polishing of their craft on Spare Ribs so that what might feel like lo-fi, plug-in-and-play punk music is actually increasingly complex, nuanced, and surgically precise.
“Glimpses” also contains perhaps the album’s most quotable line, describing our current anomie as the aforementioned “warm milkshake of nowhere.” One instinctively knows what this means and how it feels while also recognizing that it doesn’t make literal sense. Williamson and Fearn work brilliantly to capture a mood and an entire Zeitgeist by indirection, metaphor, and allusion. They repeatedly do it until you feel more or less assimilated into their strange universe, in the end, the world that we live in.
The third track in this immaculate trilogy is “Top Room”, and here we see remarkable development in Jason Williamson’s evolution as a writer. He recounts a personal injury that he suffered during the COVID lockdown while also revisiting a childhood medical condition and setting all of that against a continuing meditation on the existential and psychic confinement and suffocation of our cultural moment. The song describes a time during lockdown when Williamson hurt his back and was also reminded of a childhood condition, spina bifida, which could have caused him to lose the use of one leg. During this painful confinement, which compounded the coronavirus’s existing privations, he brings to mind a time before the pandemic when one could visit “Paris streets and restaurants near the church. The light from the lamp outside rolls under the end of the blind surrounds my pillow, glow in the birch.”
This is a remarkable lyrical sequence that suggests not just a profoundly poetic sensibility, but also a torrent of literary suggestions, from Baudelaire’s flâneur, observing the Parisian demi-monde from a safe distance, to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where our narrator observes the world outside his window as he declines into his inevitable demise, to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which both highlighted and cautioned against the kinds of literary figuring of medical conditions as character judgments. There is no suggestion that Williamson is consciously referencing any of these textual predecessors, but all of these associations are suggested by his dazzling wordcraft. As he says, almost uncannily, mere moments later, “the scope of my language is very big”, and suddenly that doesn’t sound so much like bravado as it feels like an accurate description of his skills, if not, in fact, an understatement. We are in the presence of genuine greatness here, as Williamson shifts register effortlessly, eliding perspectives and codes, from florid introspection to demotic exclamation, as he says, “Oh fuck this, oh send me, these roads are now the silence in no memory.” One can only stand by to admire and applaud this virtuosic talent as it unfolds before us, almost Whitmanian in its ability to contain such multitudes.
This eulogizing exegesis could continue indefinitely, but all due respect cannot be given to every single track, even though there are no weak links here and every track should deserve your detailed attention. So with all apologies to the brilliance of the title track (which conjures the band’s audience community as a collective of the marginalized, “spare ribs” all, as he describes them), “All Day Ticket,” “Thick Ear,” and the devastating takedown of “I Don’t Rate You” (which Jason Williamson has said is a nod toward Prodigy, in case you needed another rabbit hole to go down), let’s end where we began, with a return to the piscatorial theme you may recall from the start of this long journey through Sleaford Mods’ weird and very wonderful world.
The album ends with a dying fall and a lyrical flourish, as “Fishcakes” sees the band subdued and melancholy, both lyrically and musically. Williamson sings rather than speaks his tender elegy for an impoverished childhood where one took silver linings as one found them. “When it mattered and it always did, at least we lived, at least we lived.” We are not just revisiting childhood here, though. We are taking stock of everything we have experienced over the course of this album. While we are also being gifted with an envoi, to go out into the world with an attitude that, no matter our circumstances, when we come to look back on our lives, however hard they may have been, we should say that “at least we lived”. We live in a time of decidedly mixed blessings, but we are extraordinarily fortunate to be sharing that time with Sleaford Mods.