Unapologetically sharp and charged with opinion, Sleaford Mods return with Spare Ribs, a record which, despite an attempt to carve an original sound, fails to take chances – and pales in comparison to earlier works.
The most immediately appealing aspect of Sleaford Mods' latest record is its title. Spare Ribs: it summons up some vivid, even visceral, images. One is the vision of a depressing high street takeaway shop. Another is biblical – I am reminded of the Genesis story, of God, holding domain over the Garden of Eden, fashioning Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Here, Jason Williamson (vocals) and Andrew Fearn (DJ) are the "spare" ribs left over from this act of creation, forgotten and unwanted. Before I began to dip my toes into this new project, the title gave rise to an absurd imagined scene in my mind: The Mods sauntering away from a shining garden, takeaway trays in hand, cast out from Eden by God. Their crime? Manufacturing politically charged electronic punk.
It’s hard to explain the work of Sleaford Mods to the uninitiated. Whenever I’m called to do so, I find myself fumbling for words, trying to give a second-hand description of something that can only really be heard, and on top of that, only fully understood through experience. But I will at least attempt to offer a few words of explanation here.
The Mods were a strange, anachronistic phenomenon when they first emerged in the early 2010s. The underproduced bass loops that drove Fearns’ instrumentals, seemed to have more in common with the British Punk explosion of the late 70s than any contemporary influences. Their music pointed backwards as much as it reflected the present. The mirror they held to Cameron’s Britain was fractured by the broken aspirations of forty years before, when economic depression again mired our nation, a circumstance that birthed the first British punks. In this way their music seems our curious inheritance.
But Punk rock was two generations ago, and its face has grown old and gaunt – its output now bitter with age. It finds a new voice through Williamson, who lends resentful ranting cast in the light of a bizarre lyrical vision, to Fearns bleak instrumentals. Williamson’s lyrics, littered with vulgar language, are zealously committed to the real, yet seem to bend uncomfortably towards all that is unseen and grotesque. The vocal style Williamson adopts, staunchly retaining his provincial accent, poses the singer as a reincarnate Mark E. Smith – late frontman of post-punk group The Fall. Well, not quite. Perhaps, if Smith had been born in the East Midlands and had suffered two decades of gruelling minimum wage jobs before taking his mystic ramblings to the realm of music.
I almost never bothered to listen to this record at all. In spite of their punk credentials, the Mods have proven stylistically conservative, with album after album sticking inflexibly to the same themes and techniques that made them famous. While that may have delighted their diehard fans; it bored me to tears. Fortunately, the sound of this new project departs in some ways from that of its predecessors. Grinding bass loops make a predictable return, but on tracks such as Nudge It and Top Room, a sparser, colder, more electronic instrumental sound has been adopted.
If you’re listening to Sleaford Mods for their instrumental sound however, you’re listening for the wrong reasons. The beating heart of their work has always been Williamson’s evocative, eviscerating lyrics. Spare Ribs presents a decent effort in this respect, although the sharp character sketches that worked so well in previous albums are few and far between. Williamson’s writing works best when grounded in these believable accounts of everyday life. Without this tether to reality, some of the verses on Spare Ribs face the danger of sounding more like extracts from an especially tedious Twitter debate.
There is, of course, one more meaning that can be derived from the album’s title. Spare Rib was the name of an influential second-wave feminist magazine of the 1970s and 80s. This is perhaps indicative of the inclusion of two young, unapologetic, female punk rockers on this new album: Amy Taylor and Billy Nomates. Through Twitter, I’ve been aware of the Mod’s admiration of Amy Taylor's work for some time and was glad to hear her brief but sharp appearance on single Nudge It. Mork n Mindy, co-written and performed by Billy Nomates, is a refreshing change of tact for the most part. But the song's hook, a clarion cry by Nomate that "Too high, too low, the system won't go", comes off as crude and out of sync with Williamson's subtler style of political commentary.
Towards the end of my first listen through of Spare Ribs, I started to feel optimistic. As you progress through the record the tracks begin to adopt the new, fresher instrumental sound that gives this album its appeal. My faith was being restored. In spite of my reservations, The Mods were winning me over. Then something strange happened. Spotify pulled that irritating trick of shuffling to a random, and usually unwanted song of its own choosing. As if out of spite, the algorithm landed me with none other than Tied Up in Notts, one of the groups best tunes and the lead single of their 2014 LP Divide and Exit. At once I was reminded of the greatness of that record, and the veneer of promise surrounding the Mods latest effort came crashing down: Spare Ribs emerged in all its dull shades of mediocrity, a prodigal son who’s burnt through a great inheritance.
Perhaps I am too harsh. Sleaford Mods are still the most interesting and original group to have graced the face of British popular music in the last ten years, and they remain a more worthy heir to the British punk ethos than any other guitar driven four piece circulating today. Spare Ribs could have offered something bold, something just as novel and frightening as the political atmosphere under which it was released. Instead, the record takes few chances, and its unwillingness to adapt, to jump into the dark and risk failure is what warrants my rough handling of this album.
It’s worth a listen or two. Maybe three. But, sadly, I wouldn’t take it any further than that.
Top Track: Top Room
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
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