The Fall has a new album out. It is like all the 30-odd
albums they've put out before. It is real good, and it
sounds just like the Fall.
'There's nothing new in acid house for me, pal. I've been using that process
for years, bloody years.' MES, 1989
Mr. Bad has been listening to a
lot of British poppy stuff lately. This follows his sensitive chick DIY
singer/songwriter phase, when he used to shove Beth Orton and the like down
your throat. Now it's the latest in British fashion, the people in shiny track
suits with zippers all the way up to their necks looking like a cross between
Mark Mothersbaugh and the twerpy guy from high school who ran cross country and
owned every album by Kate Bush. It's techno, and it talks about dripping suns
and pointless optimism in the face of the Big Bowl of Fuck that's coming down
any day now. A friend of mine calls it "Millenial Shamanism," but I just think
it's cute. Happy music for people who are essentially unhappy. Take the
Teletubbies and give them even more bad drugs and see what they can come
up with given an infinite number of microphones and an infinite number of
mixing decks and David Gilmour's entire library of creepy sci-fi effects on
reel-to-reel. This is Musica Britannica, 1999. The Year of the Teletubbies.
The Year of British people in ill-fitting track suits writing songs about baked
goods and bad weather.
'Johnny Rotten's got an autobiography out - fucking pathetic! He's only
35! That's not a book, it's fucking middle-class propaganda, man!' MES,
It's 1998. You're Mark E. Smith. But it doesn't matter what year
it actually is, because every year since 1979 or so has been the Year of Mark
Smith. 'Cept that nobody actually seems to notice that fact; actually, NME
keeps giving you awards for being a genius, but you always seem to get swept
off the cover to make room for somebody shite like Oasis. Teletubbies make you
angry! No one listens to you. No one can feel your pain. So you fire your
whole band! Why not? You've made 31 or 23 or 27 albums (somebody's keeping
track somewhere) and they all sound about the same; they're all very good,
everyone knows this. They are all roughly equal in quality, and this has
always been a source of pride to you. They all sound completely different from
the last one, too. Let's see Orbital try that!
So you hire a new bunch of
musicians, game replacements with grim looks on their faces and significantly
more hair than your old mates, who you felt were getting on the paunchy,
comfortable side, to tell you the truth. You make a new album! It's called
The Marshall Suite, and it's a three-part story about some guy you call
"The Crying Marshall". It has something to do with Hardy's "The Mayor of
Casterbridge" or somesuch, some story you read somewhere, like when you wrote
that song called "Live at the Witch Trials" based on a comic book; you tell
everyone you can grab that it has nothing to do with anything else that came
before it. Was that a wink you gave us just there?
It's 1999! It's the
Year of Mark E. Smith!
'Mark E. Smith doesn't attract new fans - rather, he maintains an army of
utterly indestructible, utterly unquestioning old ones... Drone-rock zombies
who, like him, will never die, or change, or repent.' NME, 1997
MES is not a beautiful man. His ears stick out way too far and as he's
grown older, so has his entire head begun to sink directly into his neck and
upper body, leaving him with the general appereance of a wicked elf. There is
a lot of history written into his face, though, and if you can squint past the
usual outer mask of boozy detritus that's accumulated there, you can see the
face of the earnestly cynical young man still writ large and mostly curious;
almost every photo ever taken of Mark E. Smith seems to suggest a man who is 1)
just baffled by everything pop culture has to offer, 2) dedicated to its
A new Fall album is always a good chance to see what MES is puzzled by these
days, and The Marshall Suite is hardly an exception, the main difference
being, having sacked most of his band, including a rhythm section that's been
with him for the better part of two decades, off and on, there is a general
sense of trepidation as the needle drops on the leadoff track, "Touch
Sensitive": but hey there, this sounds like good old-fashioned Fall-Pop! These
guys actually sound like the Fall, or as a visitor to the Fall mailing list
asks, "IS IT JUST ME OR DO THE NEW "fall" SEEM LIKE A fall TRIBUTE BAND TO
YOU?" The answer, an inevitable (since as MES once said, "If it's just me and
your granny on bongo drums, it's a Fall gig,) emphatic "YES," is provided with
the first notes of the rollicking "F-'oldin' Money," a primo rockabilly ripoff
in the same vein as "Rollin' Dany" and countless other glorious Falltunes.
It is at this point that The Marshall Suite does the unexpected, and
turns into an actual Fall album. MES might be a bit of an ass, but maybe he
has a point about musicians ("We use the platoon system," he sez, "If the first
guys go down we've got 'em lined up behind ready to replace 'em.); this is
Fallmusic for Fallpeople, and by the time you get to the brilliant
LedZep-meets-Krautrock "Antidotes," you're ready to give in to MES' non-chalant
and drunkenly cheerful totalitarianism. The rest of the album is the same
inconsistent mix of puke and diamonds that every other Fall release is, and
there's a bit of something here for everyone.
I can't follow the story here,
but it involved a crying marshall. I only know that because there's a song
called "The Crying Marshall". I think it's brilliant, like the rest of the
album, but I've thought that about every Fall album for the last 20 years, so
it's easy to get confused. The problem with loving the Fall is that, by the
time you hear a new album, the last one starts sounding stale. I think this is
why Mark makes so many of them. Like bread and fresh fish, Fallmusic is
intended to be consumed on the spot; just wrap it up and eat it on the way
I miss Steven Hanley's authoratative basslines, but I also miss Craig
Scanlon and Brix Smith. You always miss something or somebody when you first
hear a new Fall album, but that's the beautiful part: MES works in cycles. If
you miss something, he'll bring it back sooner or later. Right now I don't
miss the Fall that made "Levitate" so much, because this album just totally
aces it in so many directions. Of course, that's a matter of personal taste.
With Mark E. Smith, you get all the flavors. And you're expected to eat
everything on your plate.
Try it out. It isn't crap, thank god. I'm going
to give a tape of this to Mr. Bad and make him listen to the whole thing at
least once, whether he wants to or not. It's going to be like prune juice, and
it's going to make him a better person with a remarkably clean set of bowels.
He'll thank me later.