Prompting the exasperation of record store clerks worldwide, 34-year-old British band The Fall have made another record called Our Future, Your Clutter. It is unknown precisely which record it is in their canon. Counting only "official" studio releases only, it's their 28th? 29th? album, but counting the countless live LPs, rarities, A and B-side comps, etc, we must be somewhere in the hundreds. This is a Fall album among many. It's about 50 minutes long, but it only has 9 tracks, with typically enigmatic titles like "Cowboy George," "Chino," "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor." Many elements of it are very Fall-esque, much like the elements of the last seven Fall albums.
There is something different about Our Future, however, in that it is the first time in many years that Mark E. Smith and his current musicians have made a Very Important Work. The kind of thing that is the reason Mr. Smith is called a Genius and his band a British Institution without bullshit hype or extra publicity of Smith's 'eccentric' behavior (which has often been attributed to a long-standing amphetamine and alcohol habit).
Just to clarify: I have no predisposed reason to uphold this record. I love The Fall, and will buy any albums they make simply because they make them, but I don't even really like the current lineup of the Fall all that much. They are, on the whole, faceless, but perhaps that's the way MES wants them to be. Pete Greenaway is generally an adept, if not particularly remarkable, guitarist; bass player Dave Spurr obviously got his start in nu-metal, and sounded better as the dinging top-end to Rob Barbato's Big Muff-ed out bass growl in the 2006-2007 band; and drummer Keiron Melling - well, at least he knows how to hit those drums really hard. This is their second go-round as official members (Spurr and Greenaway appeared on Reformation Post TLC), and Imperial Wax Solvent, their first, while full of great moments, was perhaps the most disappointing Fall record of the 2000's - one that seemed better on first listen than it revealed itself to be with repeat visits (the opposite trend of a Typical Fall Album). Smith seemed content to coast on cult-of-personality-inspired goofy gibberish through much of the record, manipulating the tapes of his band behind him into loops and interrupted song structures, the most obvious example being "50-Year Old Man," an 11-minute homage to himself. The end product often felt half-written, with the would-be classics of "Tommy Shooter" and "Senior Twilight Stock Replacer" getting a half-hearted treatment from the lead man that squandered their potential. In fact, some of the best and most inventive songs on the album were those obviously dashed off at the last minute, the Sesame Street-like "Latch Key Kid" and the noisily jarring "Exploding Chimney." Like all Fall albums, it has too many great moments to be called "bad," but to this listener, it often seemed like the companion piece to Smith's ridiculous autobiography, Renegade; a chance for him to take a loaf break, even the score with a few old enemies and, basically, "talk a lot of wind."
Stranger still, to me, half of this album isn't really worth making much of a fuss about. In fact, the album's first five songs are a hair's breadth away from being the better produced, more British counterpart to Reformation (recorded with Smith's one and only American backing band) - extended jams with goofy nonsequitors sprinkled here and there by a seemingly aloof Smith. Opener "O.F.Y.C. Showcase" hangs on one chord while Smith shouts inside of a cupboard or some such enclosed space. Melling pounds his drums while MES raises his voice higher and higher, with further psychotic indignation, but the end product seems tantamount to vigorously jacking off a limp dick; the enthusiasm is there, but the idea simply isn't. "Bury Pts. 1, 2, and 3" starts off promisingly, with the entire band filtered through a fuzz pedal, but its counterparts trail off into forgettableness. "Mexico Wax Solvent" is typical Smith absurdity over a predictable backing; it's as if this band is eternally stuck on two or three grooves - which is just when "Cowboy George" comes in, proving them capable of a dynamic range. An amphetamine spaghetti-Western rockabilly track, it sees the band finally bring their A-game - and Smith responds, throwing in his ever so off-key sense of melody and interrupting the proceedings with, of all things, a tape recording of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." But then "Hot Cake" takes it back to the same garage riffs we've heard make up most of the last three Fall albums, and it doesn't really go anywhere.
However, the let-down of the first half seems like a deliberate fluke once you get to "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor." Accompanied by only Spurr and Melling at the beginning, Smith starts throwing counter-rhythms back at his band with his voice - grooving, almost, while a clanky bass overdub throws off your concentration. But then at the 2 minute mark, the proceedings are completely overthrown for the first truly hypnotic Fall riff this incarnation of the band has been able to muster - one that recalls the days of Scanlon, Riley, Hanley, etc. This time, the energy is truly there for all involved, and Smith is stepping over himself in overdubs to match the magic his band's whipped up. And at the end, we are treated to a full 90 seconds of strange addendums, again courtesy of Smith's infamous portable tape recorder - a country outro taped at a practice with Smith intoning "One cigarette's gonna do it....," a drum pattern beaten out onto pant legs, and an ethereal phone message from a man who, as The Quietus revealed in their in-depth review, is an arthritis specialist. For the first time in a long time, this Fall album reveals itself as truly ominous - not just the typical handiwork of some minor, quirky, British celebrity.
Follow-up "Chino" is the album's "Blindness," but this time, we are given a far more personal, autobiographical rant. Over an abrasive introduction, Smith informs us that "This is an actual account of the operational proceedings." Here, wife Eleni Poulou's stamp is all over the track, her modern Allen Ravenstine squeals creating a fuzzy atmosphere for Smith to wrestle with himself: "How can I leave this trench alone? My darling is waiting," he says. Talk of hospitals, hell and war loop throughout the 5 minutes. The Quietus speculated that this is Smith's contemplation of retirement, after over 30 years of service to the music industry, but who knows? One thing is for certain - with talk of a "slippy floor," the voice of an arthritis specialist on his answering machine, and pondering how to "get out of this hospital," Smith's mind seems to be on his physical well being, and, perhaps, his mortality. The album's darkest moment so far is immediately countered with its most light-hearted, a cover of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," the best cover on a Fall album since Are You Are Missing Winner's revamping of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Town." But in a way, it plays into "Chino"'s talk of a lover the singer compulsively returns to, and thematically anticipates the album's closing theme of loss of control - "My mind is a blank, my head is spinning around and around in the funnel of love."
And then, closer "Weather Report 2" changes everything. The entire album. It is, in fact, the greatest song the Fall have written in 10 years. It makes much of the past 10 years of the Fall seem a bit silly. Beginning with some honest guitar harmonics - perhaps a Fall first - it opens with a vulnerable, melodic backing that sounds like the more uneasy counterpart to early 90s tracks "Bill is Dead" and "Rose," but something is horribly amiss. Smith is attempting to croon. "Hello, how are you today? I thought the vitamins worked, changed my life." Soon, he is returning to a line, echoed by a lower-pitched, darker overdub. "No one has called me 'sir' in my entire life. You gave me the best years of my life." We are firmly in "Bill is Dead" territory now, where Smith sarcastically sang, "These are the finest times of my life." But now, things seem a bit more final. The first 2 minutes have the feeling of a lament, the number at the end of a Citizen Kane-type musical about the Fall: has it all been worth it? In a career of calling the worst things that could ever happen to a bandleader (onstage punchups, abandoned tours, a phalanx of untrustworthy record contracts) "the best thing that ever happened," here we are shown that maintaining Mark E. Smith, the persona maybe hasn't been so easy for Mark E. Smith, the human. And it's a sobering experience, especially after the British media circus that's surrounded the group and Smith since the mid-2000s. It made Smith into an unforgettable media kook and his band finally got some of the recognition they deserved. But to celebrate the band as an institution and its leader as a charming weirdo stunts their art's credibility, and perhaps even affected the product itself, if Imperial Wax Solvent can be held up as an example. And one must return to what Grant Showbiz said about Mark's destruction of the 80s lineup of the Fall: "Just as it was going really well, I think Mark just went, 'I'm not really what you're saying I am. I am not this thing, I am Mark E. Smith. I am not your pet.'"
Now that his story has practically become tantamount to a modern British folktale, Smith bares the scars behind the madness. "No one has ever called me 'sir' in my entire life," he says, sounding more rueful, more resigned and bitter each time. When he says "You gave me the best years of my life," is he talking to us? to his wife? Does he mean it? Meanwhile, an apocalypse is on the horizon, signaled by the off-key synth growl and the talk of 'weather reports' and expanding whirlpools, until the entire track is superceded by Poulou's bass synth and Smith's voice of God/doom. Three terrifying minutes follow. This time, Smith has captured all the bullshit of the doomsday culture we live in today, and he's made it all real. He's thrown it back at us. He's destroyed his band again, but he sees a greater destruction ahead. "Weather reports. It's like an ice rink....I miss my family in Oxford....The whirlpools cascade over the smoking tents." The whirlpools widen and Poulou gets louder until that too washes away for one final, unaccompanied, whispered stanza: "Never mind Jackson/What about Saxon's/recording of lost London? You don't deserve rock and roll." It is, by far, the best closing to Fall album, ever, not to mention one of Smith's most accomplished set of lyrics, and perhaps his most effective and terrifying use of sound collage.
I have been changed by "Weather Report 2." The song has followed me around ever since I heard it. It haunts me. I've listened to it 10 times in the past two days. True, many Fall records end in a peculiar way. Reformation ended with the band playing one note over and over, as if to say, "we'll be back." Imperial Wax Solvent ended with the words, "Believe me kids, I've been through it all." Are You Are Missing Winner ended, like many albums before it (Code: Selfish, The Light User Syndrome) with a farce. Levitate ended with Smith fading into the background chanting, "Everybody But Myself," while audience members pretended to be him, temporarily succumbing to the 'slow, subtle lost of identity' he later described on his solo album. But only the end of Our Future, Your Clutter sounds like "goodbye."