, November 18th, 2011 12:16
He's a sneering bastard with a face like a tramp's street-crumpled duvet. His reputation for being a difficult character, whether you're a collaborator, journalist or acquaintance, precedes him in acres of newsprint. He has a cult status that he probably never asked for, but has been cursed with nonetheless. Now, he finds himself dishing spoken-word on a record of pugnacious rock blasted out by a backing band of tattooed bruisers. Critically panned, attracting death threats from outraged fans, and sliding fast out of the charts, Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu is a failure thanks to the refusal of anyone involved, or indeed anyone in the same room, to be able to say "no". On it, ego triumphs.
Ersatz GB, by contrast, continues to further The Fall's 30 year legacy (there's that unwanted cult status for you), precisely because that band, and Mark E Smith, are all about saying "no". Painting Smith as the bitter Fuhrer of The Fall is a mistake because he's the one who knows exactly when to edit. This is not his band, no mere vanity project as Lulu is. This is not anyone's band - this is The Fall, and Mark E Smith is the curator. We know everything about Smith's treatment of the musicians around him (amp fiddling etc) but part of the reason in interviews he's so guarded, spinning myths and half truths, is because he doesn't want to reveal those times when, as curator of The Fall, he has looked inwards and said "no" to himself.
On initial listens to Ersatz GB it seemed that said Mark E Smith had perhaps said "no" too few times. It felt murky, scant of vim. Domino Records, who released last album Your Future, Our Clutter, reportedly placed unaccustomed constraints on Smith. "What Domino Wants, Domino Shall Have" it was proclaimed, sarcastically, while one lyric ran "a new way of recording / a chain around the neck". Perhaps freedom, and a new deal with Cherry Red, had allowed for a lack of focus?
Ersatz G.B. certainly lacks the dynamic range of Your Future, Our Clutter, and is missing one of those late-period Fall pop songs a la 'Sparta FC'. Nevertheless, this density is, after repeated listens, Ersatz GB's strength. The thick-set sound is the bunker from which Mark E Smith delivers his fusillade against the onslaught of cosy complacency - she those recent, outlandish claims of bottling Mumford & Sons. A sturdy record, it gets off to terrific start with 'Cosmos 7's hyperactive rattle, Smith doing his vocal prowl trick, words appearing now and then: "CO2", "mythical European". Recent Fall albums have seen Smith paint an abstract picture of contemporary life with these lyrical scatters. So it is here with 'Taking Off', 'Nate Will Not Return' and 'Mask Search', with talk of "Bonjella complexion" and Simon (presumably Cowell's) "40 carat scum" and the strange dissection of Gossip Girl on 'Nate Will Not Return'. Then there's "I'm so sick of Snow Patrol / and where to find Esso lubricant", like a moment-of-self-realisation internal monologue from a deranged Alan Partridge.
It's this intense fury in Smith's vocal that eventually makes the hulking performance – excessive cymbals, thundering bass, very un-Fall-like guitar shredding - by The Group work. They're the wrecking ball, Smith high in the cab, swinging a giant weight against the flimsy, shallow contemporary world around him.
Even younger standard bearers for purportedly leftfield music don't escape Smith's ire. The best track on here by a country mile is the vicious 'Greenway'. The development of the track can be watched in innumerable live clips on YouTube, which combine to reveal that the track is a sucker-punch to These New Puritans. Built over a mastodon riff, Smith snarls about "Jason" (he's previously referred to Jack Barnett as "Jason from These New Puritans" at live outings of the song): "channel hopping the other day to Danish rock TV / I noticed a video with a person who bore a remarkable resemblance to myself". In the song, Smith recounts a visit to These New Puritans' hotel room, where the group, afraid, have chairs piled up against the door. "Their tone was snotty and offensive" Smith growls and, infuriated, shouts "to relax I killed my cat" then, bizarrely, "I had to wank off the cat to feed the fucking dog." 'Greenway' has the finest Smith snarl ever recorded, with layers of vocals going "arrgggghhh" behind as if he recorded himself, falsies out on the sink, having a Listerine gargle. It's a classic late-period Fall blaster in the vein of 'Blindness' and '50 Year Old Man'. Like the heavy presentation of the first four tracks, the Elena Smith fronted (and well-named) 'Happi Song' is an oddity, jangly guitars and a sweet, wonky delivery, as if Nico had turned up fronting a fey C86 band.
If there's a quibble with The Fall in 2011, it's that it's surely high time for an LP in the vein of 2000's caustic, digital hulk The Unutterable. For now, though, Ersatz GB still trumps most records released this year as, one suspects, The Fall always will. It all ends with 'Age Of Chang', one of those Fall tracks that's emerges from Dictaphone recording lo-fi, Smith again ranting and distorted "time for chang... contractural land... laptop survey" as the band offer the less nasally-challenging cry of "time for change!". Where Your Future Our Clutter ended with the taunting whisper "you don't deserve rock & roll", Ersatz GB concludes with a chuckle: "a dam of vast proportions will break over Hawksmoor," as if Smith is using his record to summon forth a biblical cleansing over banal Britain. To mediocrity, The Fall continue to say 'no'.