Mark E. Smith has previously thrived on conflict and controversy, but this time the fallout from yet another dramatic line-up change has resulted in one of the Fall's more disappointing releases.
Even by the standards of Mark E. Smith's decidedly idiosyncratic career this is a deeply odd and disjointed record. At the tail end of the 1990s many had finally written him off as a spent force, but instead Smith began to assemble new line-ups for a string of largely excellent career rejuvenating albums beginning with 2000s The Unutterable through to 2005s Fall Heads Roll. The musicians that comprised the core of the last three releases were jettisoned (or walked out, it's not entirely clear) along with the manager halfway through a U.S tour -- and prior to recording this, their 26th album -- after yet another, possibly violent, altercation with their singularly, and consistently, irascible leader. Only Smith's wife, keyboard player Elena Poulou, remained.
In order to fulfil recording commitments, as well as a number of tour dates, a raft of American replacements were drafted in. The great shame of Reformation... is that -- and as a die-hard Fall fan of 20 years, I can barely bring myself to write these words -- you are constantly thinking of what could've been if the previous line-up had stayed and seen the project through. Instead we have what is merely an average Fall album, which displays little of the musical vigour exhibited on their last few releases though Smith himself seems as keenly berserk as ever.
Leaving the music aside for a minute, Smith's vocal performance is worthy of considerable mention here. Often criticized for his repetitively atonal rant-speech, this album probably features the greatest 'range' of vocal styles of his entire career. Two minutes into opener "Over! Over!" he slips into a blood-curdling rattling bass-gargle that has to be one of the most unnerving things I have ever heard. It has popped up before on Country on the Click track "The Past #2", but never with such chillingly dark, undisguised menace. On Merle Haggard cover "White Line Fever" he attempts the straightforward singing style he employed on his band's version of the Kink's "Victoria" 20 years ago and attempts to sing in tune: the vocal equivalent of a car without a steering wheel trying to stay on a twisting mountain road and frequently plunging through the crash barrier into the ravine. And on the baffling Trout Mask Replica inspired "Insult Song" he mixes the scary bass-gargle with a cod-American accent as he proceeds to thoroughly rubbish and lambast his new charges barely as they have inked the signatures of their new contracts. "They were a bunch of twats" he blithely remarks at one point. Further Captain Beefheart references occur on the downbeat "Scenario" which quotes the lyric from "Veterans Day Poppy". Even when the music is flat Smith's performance is never anything less than utterly compelling: almost sweet at times ("Coach and Horses") then suddenly blasting out of the speakers with venomous menace.
In terms of tunes though the album is an immense disappointment. The pile driving power of previous album highlights like "Cyber Insekt" and "Youwanner" is utterly absent and the result musically is their weakest offering since 1996's The Light User Syndrome (and even that featured the bombastic surge of "He Pep!") Not only is there a distinct lack of energy and memorable hooks but the drum and guitar playing feel muted, even timid at times; not a characteristic you usually associate with the Fall's well drilled troops. The bass guitars (there are two bassists) sound clunky, are pushed up too high in the mix and dominate proceedings, leading to a murky and one-dimensional feel for much of the album. There is also far too much filler and "Das Boat" -- a turgid 10-minute slice of clanking meandering nonsense -- has to be the most pointless track they have recorded since Light User's "The Colliseum". I suppose much of this was inevitable in the circumstances; these musicians were emergency cover drafted in at zero notice. The trouble is it REALLY sounds like it. The words "papering", "over", and "cracks" leap to mind.
There are still some gems though (there always are). Opener "Over! Over!" is optimistic and defiant with Smith putting recent upheavals aside to state "I think it's over now/ I think it's beginning." It also features growling backing vocals malevolently repeating the phrase "I don't love you and I never did", a refrain Smith picks up himself, just in case his old band mates had any doubts about his current feelings. "The Wright Stuff" uses a tacky entertainment programme as the launching pad for pot-shots at modern celebrity culture. The track has the singer handing over the vocal duties to his wife who deadpans brilliantly over her own strident keyboard playing. There is also much humour in the self-deprecating lyrics of "The Usher" which takes the form of a list of behavioural modification tips Smith has seemingly written down to avoid any further band meltdowns: "A: No violence / B: Ultimate sorry-ness."
All things considered Reformation Post-TLC feels like a backward step, though the Fall are now such an institution that it probably won't matter in the long run. The album begins with a burst of laughter and Smith lapses into giggles on numerous occasions as if to suggest he's not taking it all that seriously. Why then should we? Listening to this record sent me back for a re-appraisal of Are You Are Missing Winner the last album to receive less than unanimously glowing reviews: it's good actually and much better than this.
One of Smith's most famous quotes regarding his band's ever-mutating line up is that 'if it's me and your Granny on bongos it's still the Fall.' This then is very much a 'Granny on bongos' album, despite his protestations to the contrary. He has lost a talented group of musicians (guitarist Ben Pritchard's absence is the most keenly felt) and replaced them with a markedly inferior line up. The Fall in some form or another will continue, let's just hope that next time they rekindle their creative drive, here they sound like they're merely cruising.