Where the history of popular music is littered with entertainers who looked good posing with instruments they couldn’t actually play, Sleaford Mods’ resident multi-instrumentalist, producer and beatmaker Andrew Fearn is the rare case of someone who’s done the exact opposite. Make no mistake: Fearn has a gimmick, but his gimmick has been to downplay his prodigious musical abilities and present himself as a human prop. In videos and live appearances, Fearn does little more than press play on a laptop and then bounce in place as frontman/founder Jason Williamson engages in diatribes that fall somewhere between spoken-word poetry, dramatic monologue, rapping and singing.
When Fearn and Williamson caused a sensation in 2014-15 with their one-two punch of albums Divide and Exit and Key Markets, the combination of Fearn’s spartan, almost childishly simple beats and Williamson’s rapid-fire delivery exuded so much street-level grit that the Mods were pegged as post-millennial inheritors of the English punk tradition. If you didn’t take a close enough look, though, it looked like it was just a matter of time before Fearn and Williamson would expose themselves as having more attitude than substance. That never happened—on their 2016 EP T.C.R., Fearn stretched out musically, Williamson started to sing for real, and the pair were off and running on a surprisingly dynamic creative trajectory.
With Spare Ribs, their third full-length since T.C.R., the duo proves once again that it’s no one-trick pony. With good reason, much has been made of the way Sleaford Mods have personified British life under the looming specter of Brexit. As such, the band has been lauded for capturing the ambient tension as the U.K. has hurtled towards an inexorable reckoning with a host of social schisms that Brexit both reflected and exacerbated. American listeners, regardless of their political sympathies, should certainly be able to relate, given the similarly catalytic role the Trump presidency has played in the States. In both countries, anxiety pervades, seemingly fueled by a collective sense that their empire status has been triggered into an accelerating cycle of decay.
Of course, pressure points that were already under enormous strain in both places have been pushed to the limit by the pandemic. If previous Sleaford Mods albums have benefitted from the anticipation that something dire was just around the corner, Spare Ribs arrives amidst the inescapable feeling that the other shoe has dropped—or at least that we’ve reached a point where, for better or worse, life is never going to be quite the same again. Williamson wrote half of the new album while locked down at home, so it’s no surprise that a significant portion of the new material—“Short Cummings,” the title track, “Out There,” “Top Floor” and “Glimpses”—addresses the experience in some way.
Strangely, though, while we might expect Williamson’s signature agitation to boil over on these new post-COVID tunes, Spare Ribs doesn’t vibrate at the frequency of mass unease or claustrophobia so much as it resides in the mundane, even when Williamson talks about rising “panic behind the tills.” Which is not to say that he isn’t pissed about the various ways that profit, power and politics have managed to prevail over compassion and practicality, even in the face of a global catastrophe. Williamson titled the album as he did, for example, as a way of illustrating that the average person’s life is essentially valueless—i.e:, to the wealthy and powerful, the rest of us are just spare ribs. Unsurprisingly, he repeatedly decries the excesses of capitalism , wryly remarking in one spot that we have “3 to 400 years left of this capitalist orgy” and equating financial malfeasance with ejaculation in another.
On “Glimpses,” Williamson juxtaposes the image of an actor receiving 20-30 pairs of free sneakers with a playground in decay: “Don’t wanna get no one on there / and the swings look in pain / like they are acid rain / into the death stare.” Meanwhile, Williamson still harbors plenty of ire for artists whose integrity he finds lacking. On “Nudge It,” he spits venom at “fucking class tourists”—musicians who pretend they’re from lower-income backgrounds than they really are. Written before the pandemic upended our daily routines, “Nudge It” comes off as somewhat petty in light of the bigger issues Williamson finds himself facing elsewhere. Thankfully, the swipes he takes are buoyed by a backing track that marries a slashing guitar lick reminiscent of Wire, a piano figure in the spirit of vintage Elvis Costello, and a drumbeat that could’ve been lifted straight from a Roots record.
While Spare Ribs follows a disjointed train of thought, it’s a train of thought that accurately mirrors what life has been for many of us over the last year, as the apocalyptic and the mundane compete for our attention. This duality of perspective is best captured on the pair of songs “Out There” and “Top Room,” where Williamson first marvels at how surreal and sci fi-esque the lockdown experience has been and then retreats to an upstairs room to take shelter from the aggravations of being cooped-up with his own family. Since T.C.R., Williamson’s message has resounded more powerfully the more he’s allowed the listener into his domestic sphere. (Meanwhile, on “Mork N Mindy” and “Fish Sticks,” Williamson shifts his gaze away from the present to reflect on his childhood.)
This time, in the context of what’s going on “out there,” there’s something strangely reassuring about listening to him blow off steam from a place of everyday irritation, rather than apoplexy. As the external urgency level has gone up, Williamson has been wise to tamp down his vituperative attack. That said, Sleaford Mods have been saddled with voice-of-a-generation cachet for half a decade now. If you were expecting that the pandemic would spur them on to deliver an era-defining statement along the lines of America Eats Its Young, London Calling or It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Spare Ribs communicates in surprisingly subdued tones.
For every wildly entertaining gut punch like “Watch ‘im get depressed under the COVID stress / little cunt!” there are several verses where Williamson chooses to speak in metaphors. With Spare Ribs, he continues to move away from the obvious and more towards poetic license. He’s no longer the guy on the corner with a megaphone shouting that the sky is falling, but rather someone whose main focus is crafting an artful arrangement of words and images. Additionally, Williamson’s litanies are so stuffed with English references that listeners outside the U.K. may as well be watching a film in another language—individual phrases are understandable enough to get visuals, but it’s often hard to discern how the characters are relating to the scenery.
This lack of explicit clarity prevents Spare Ribs from sinking into monotone lecture—not that Fearn would let that happen with the music. Throughout, he channels influences as disparate as Devo (“All Day Ticket”), Depeche Mode (“Mork N Mindy”), the English techno duo Orbital (“I Don’t Rate You”), classic ‘70s-era pogo-punk (“Glimpses”) and a slew of recognizable touchstones across the post-punk/indie rock/electronic/hip-hop spectrum. Fearn has a particular knack for wearing his influences on his sleeve while skewing them just enough to make them his own and, crucially, making them sound current. Since he first joined forces with Williamson in time for Sleaford Mods’ fifth album, 2012’s Wank, the duo have slowly but surely etched their place in a long line of British acts who set off cultural mini-revolutions by both defining genres and refusing to be confined by them.
If you were to put artists like The Fall, Killing Joke, Massive Attack and PJ Harvey in a room, it’s now arguable that Sleaford Mods have a place in that room. Because it doesn’t cohere quite as much as their previous output, Spare Ribs wouldn’t necessarily be the album you point to in order to make that case, but it’s not short on charm or growth, so it doesn’t detract from the argument, either.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.