The Fall have befuddled their reviewers for 30 years. Their new album is no different. Lyrics are a cryptic, nonsensical, semi-inspired / semi-moronic patchwork quilt of sound bites that always seem to be three steps ahead of the suffering reviewer trying to make sense of what The Fall are actually up to.
The new album contains lines as simultaneously idiotic and profound as “Wolf kidult man, wolf kidult son, where is your mum? Your power is gone.”, about Jeffery Archer’s trial: “I was provoked! It was not in accord with any known law. Laughing in the middle. Time blenders, all of them.”, and in a marathon-length “50 Year Old Man”, the bizarre, hilarious lyric: “It’s that Steve Albini. He’s in collusion with Virgin Trains against me.” This heathen disregard of concern about appearing smart or directed by high concepts that make for ease of inquiry concerning “what the song is about” is anathema to the discerning critic looking to put bands into sweet little paragraphs that serve to orchestrate and summarize their direction, aims or purpose. The shameful thing happens to be that with most bands this is easy to do. Despite many critics turning to Mark E. Smith’s working class Northern roots, his grumpiness, his awkwardness with conducting pop interviews with the usual insipid, conformist glee, The Fall remain as difficult to describe now as they ever have been. I figure that’s why the word genius was invented.
Despite not wishing to appear overly intelligent, Mark E. Smith can’t seem to help it. His love of language shines through above and beyond any concern with the theory of the high-concept art rock, or the practice of flaunting his ego in front of a melange of clueless fad-shoppers. His attraction to strange sounding, sometimes clunky, sometimes idiotic, sometimes brilliant phrases echoes through his work: strange vocabulary for a rock and roll poet abound: terms such as “itinerant” from Guest Informant, “collusion”, “calvary” from 2006’s Fall Heads Roll et al. asserts his smartness against the irreconcilable odds he often puts against himself during the many self-sabotage experiments he indulges in periodically.
The Fall’s lyrical content can be hasty, self-indulgent and whimsical; the semi-stream of consciousness of Mark E. Smith’s decidedly leftfield poetry often carries the metaphors or themes of his song to the point of nonsense (see Tommy Shooter, which talks about “pictures of poodles”, “the clouds are darkening with wings of chickens / they are coming home to roost”, “chickens coming home to sit on your shoulder bone”, etc.). All of this playing around with meaning irritates some while it inspires others: in the former camp, Julian Cope is derisory about this seeming inability for The Fall to produce anything coherent or authentic – their messiness with ideas and concepts easily translated into further evidence that Mark E. Smith is merely acting as some kind of insane shyster making his living through empty posturing and by delineating that high-modernist ideal that the more obscurant one is, the better a genius he ultimately is. In the latter camp, a whole bunch of writers, artists and musicians who seem to be as attracted to Mark E. Smith’s bilious, self-made personality as they are to the music. As a Guardian overview of Mark E. Smith politely suggests: “The admiration he inspires might in part be down to the fact that he is a self-taught working-class man who has always enjoyed a pint and a ciggie.” Then, in The Fall’s case, separating the man from the music is often impossible.
However nonsensical and jarring such literary canoodling appears regarding the narrative, thematic content of the song or album, nonsensical content remains, for the most part glorious nonsense: compellingly playful, adroit, hilarious and, at times marked by that indescribable, sinister air of genius Mark E. Smith seems to effortlessly transcribe into his words and expressions. Julian Cope, in my estimation, doesn’t seem to see eye to eye with The Fall simply because he doesn’t share the band’s macabre, disjointed sense of humor. While Mark E. Smith’s continual denunciation of his role as band front-man leaves him open to criticism if his personality and unique poetic sensibilities fail him (which they rarely do), it also creates exciting new ground in what I will pretentiously call the meta-organizational identikit of the Indie-rock aesthetic, or the archetype generation through oft-stressed cliche of typical pop rock outrage and the subscription to thereof by clueless ruffians from inner cities. Chic. As embarrassingly demonstrated by my garbled prior sentence, The Fall can appeal to a postmodern theorist’s sensibilities as much as they can appeal to those in pursuit of simple common-or-garden genius. And it works both ways.
While The Fall’s seminal 1980s work, notably the acerbic, caustic Hex Enduction Hour, was marked by Smith’s ranting delivery that was angry even if nobody quite knew what the anger was about, their recent work seems more self-deprecating, more humor-filled and, in all, happier. When Smith says “I’m a 50 year old man and I like it” he seems to be, for once, expressing the truth without using any other obfuscating strategy. In case we are left feeling ambiguous by The Fall’s new joviality in the overarching light of Smith’s maturity, the song degenerates into an old-fashioned folksy banjo solo, perfectly reflective of Mark E. Smith’s newly found attraction to becoming the national treasure he undoubtedly is in a much better parallel universe.
The band charts similar Fall terrain, from the electronica-spiked “Taurig” that seems inspired in part by Smith’s recent collaboration with Mouse on Mars with Von Sudenfed, to the more traditional garage rock staples of “Wolf Kidult Man” and “Strange Town”, to the sketchbook cut-and-paste of “50 Year Old Man”, and combinations thereof. Evidence of Mark E. Smith relaxing his notorious grip on the band can be spotted in “I’ve Been Duped”, in which Elena Poulou sings in a cryptic, typically Fallesque fashion that exploits the multivalent ways in which the original line can be aligned to other lyrics. Instead of sounding like instrumental filler, the song is actually something of a highlight, and can either be read as evidence of the hidden depths of this recent incarnation of The Fall, or else proves that Mark E. Smith is a master of mind control. The song is typical insofar as it contains Fall grievances that juxtapose the sublime and the banal in a manner that many other bands would be reluctant to give the time of day: Late night TV is described as having “No art groups, just gambling”. If Mark E. Smith is no longer concerned about extrapolating the harshest criticisms for the most mundane of social developments: “Your lousy record collection”, “The bars are full of male slags”, “Cheap carpets line the way”, his co-conspirator and wife Poulou seems to be filling in for him. The fruits of this division of labour are that they lend a richness to The Fall’s sound where previously, Smith’s limited, atonal vocalising often tested audience patience to its limits.
The most oft-cited quotation about The Fall is John Peel’s, that they are “always the same, always different”, and is frequently used by lazy, unimaginative reviewers (such as myself) as a way to describe the band’s complex aesthetic. Imperial Wax Solvent is not a disaster; it does the usual Fall things, as in, it is as obscurantist as it is primitive, as serious and arty as it is irreverent and hilarious, and it is as cynically dispatched and exploitative of the leader’s personality cult as it is a particular expression of his unique and thriving genius. However it is put, this defiantly non-definitive album by one of British music’s most enduring and legendary bands deserves to be listened to over and over. Mark E. Smith’s transition from post-punk anger merchant to grumpy self-deprecating middle-aged man is one to be cherished and, while he may be mellower in his old age, The Fall remain full of poetry, playfulness and experimental zeal.
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