Release Date: Jun 9, 2015
Record label: Cherry Red
A well-rounded and surprisingly busy album from the Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet finds leader Mark E. Smith taking the producer's chair for LP number 31. Clean-sounding and intricately built tracks suggest he trusts the current lineup of the long-running band, while the return of cassette-taped interludes and other found sounds recall the band's 1984-1988 stretch, a golden age when they were regulars on the indie charts.
“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos – it’s The Fall”. So goes that Mark E Smith quote, which goes some way to explaining the band’s revolving door policy over the years. There are a great many quotes and ideas that are constantly used about The Fall in order to give their quite phenomenal career and back catalogue some kind of understandable narrative.
Reviewing a new album from The Fall in 2015 is a pretty thankless task. There’s only so many times the same old clichés about the group can be churned out, and yet there’s also no way of writing about a band releasing their thirty-first album without making heavy reference to their formidable reputation. Mark E. Smith’s juggernaut has staggered wonderfully erratically on the margins of the mainstream long enough now that the bands influenced by the bands that were originally influenced by The Fall are now influencing new bands.
Across four decades and over 30 albums, Mark E. Smith, the only constant member of the Fall throughout its many incarnations, has remained remarkably consistent. His lyrics are as odd in 2015 as they were back in 1979, his off-beat vocal style has remained largely unchained, and, for better or worse, when one listens to a new album from the Fall one knows, more or less, exactly what to expect.
Despite Mark E. Smith’s fearsome reputation as rock's consummate contrarian crank and irascible iconoclast, the first two decades of the Fall’s evolution could more or less be charted alongside developments in British music at large. From the primitivist punk of their late-'70s releases, to the synth-powered pop of their chart-breaching mid-'80s output, to the baggy grooves of early '90s dancefloor infiltrators like "Telephone Thing" and "Free Range", the Fall weren’t so much an antidote to popular music as a funhouse-mirror distortion of it, with Smith’s anti-social snarl having a corrupting effect on jaunty honky-tonk shuffles, soccer-stadium-worthy sing-alongs, and the great British songbook.
Sleaford Mods’ grouchy uncle pours yet more scorn on the modern world. Despite being an untouchable cult icon to many, the long third act of Mark E Smith’s career has seen a marked decline in power and focus. But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and the Victor Meldrew of post-punk can still muster an occasional blast of the old sneery, sharp-eyed genius.
Despite frontman Mark E Smith’s propensity for hiring and firing, The Fall have enjoyed an unprecedented period of calm over the past decade. Remarkably, the current quintet has endured since Smith’s last major personnel putsch in 2007 and, with this new waxing taken into account, they’ve now clocked up an unbroken run of five full-length studio LPs. What MES’s present charges have thus achieved, however, has been solid rather than seismic.
Longtime Fall fan John Doran of the Quietus recently suggested the current Fall lineup had got “too comfortable” to rank with the very best iterations of Mark E Smith’s group. What seems to be album No 31 certainly has its share of Fall-by-numbers, in which the bass grinds on, keyboards trace spindly patterns, and Smith grumbles in one of his incomprehensible and terrifying voices – Pledge and Black Door certainly fit that description. But there are surprises, too – Junger Cloth offers the faint but unmistakeable influence of West African pop, albeit in a version that’s not going to get them on Africa Express anytime soon.
The Fall — Sub-Lingual Tablet (Cherry Red)The best track on this 31st Fall album comes just after the halfway point in the dreamy, dubby, spittleflecked “Autochip 14-15”, in which Mark E. Smith surfs an endless motorik propulsion, 10 minutes of thundering double-walloped drums, muttering bass and chaotic, scrapping guitar. “How bad are English musicians?” Smith moans at intervals over the churn and tumult, the narrative dissolving in snarls and guttural spitballs of consonants.
“I want a fucking Facebook troll” snarls Mark E Smith on The Fall’s 31st studio album Sub-Lingual Tablet - not one to be underestimated, Smith is obviously very observant of modern culture despite purportedly not owning a mobile phone and being particularly averse to the weird and complicated world of social media and the internet in general. Along with being the world’s most unlikely Gossip Girl fan (see "Nate Will Not Return" from 2011’s Ersatz), he routinely references aspects of contemporary life, and as evidenced at their live shows in which the bulk of material is mostly new, has little affinity for the past. Despite MES becoming increasingly indecipherable over the years, thanks to a propensity for practically coughing up and spitting out his lyrics, The Fall still remain relevant because of Smith’s dogged tendency to denounce nostalgia and focus on the present, which is seldom heard of in an era of comeback tours and pointless reissues.
Fall gigs over the past year or so have seen the band on form, aided and abetted by a second drummer who seemed to be treating his kit as a means of overcoming a nervous breakdown through gymnastics. There's a strange alchemy to The Fall live that will always make them compelling, yet with a line-up that has been stable since 2007, it's hard not to look back over a period that covers a quarter of The Fall's history and ask, what exactly has been achieved? I'd of course still rather go and watch Mark E Smith, Elena and the hod carriers than Brix and the assorted former members currently taking a trip down the nostalgia trail. In many ways Sub-Lingual Tablet is, like any Fall album will be, a stranger and superior record than most released in any given year.