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Dry Cleaning
Stumpwork Hayley Scott , November 4th, 2022 09:56

South London quartet follow up their critically acclaimed New Long Leg with a more sombre record shot through with stony-faced rage

Over the past few years, speak-singing has become a point of contention amid a particular group of music fans, as though hip-hop never existed. It’s easy to feel disillusioned by cultural trends, especially when it’s been commodified and tainted with connotations of white men with guitars and the right contacts at 6 Music. So much has already been said about post-punk’s predilection for the spoken word: it’s visceral, to the point, and allows you to experiment with character in a way traditional singing doesn’t (it’s a great way to elicit sarcasm, for example). But the current literary renaissance, the cross-pollination of literary and musical worlds, is seldom acknowledged.

Dry Cleaning’s second album Stumpwork is like a collection of poetry – more flash fiction than conventional songwriting – with the instruments acting as background noise, or an afterthought, as opposed to taking centrestage. Dry Cleaning join an increasingly long lineage of artists who are less informed by the confessional poetry of, say, Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and more preoccupied with the conversational mode of avant-garde storytelling and esoteric literary techniques.

We’ve got a pandemic to partly thank for that. Our attention spans have taken a battering. Two years of doom scrolling, self-diagnosing, infinite access to rolling news, and an overload of polarising information will do that. We don’t know what to think, what the fuck we’re meant to be doing, or who we even are any more.

Our capacity for small talk is almost non-existent. All we have is information but no answers, just more confusion for the pile. Flash fiction is the ideal literary form for the overwhelmed. It’s no surprise, then, that one of singer Florence Shaw’s favourite books is Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, a collection of different voices telling short, real stories about genuine trauma that gets straight to point. Here, Shaw navigates her own trauma – grief, loneliness, loss and anxiety – but her inner monologues are presented like intrusive thoughts as she holds it all together; those dark interior ruminations always managing to bubble over. Stumpwork is the musical equivalent of remembering to take the rubbish out during the darkest depths of a mental breakdown. It’s disassociating while doing the washing up. It’s those fleeting pangs of joy in the middle of it all.

While previous album New Long Leg possessed a lingering volatility – noisy, deconstructed guitars and a dogged pursuit of the ordinary – Stumpwork takes a more sombre turn, swapping an emphasis on melody for idiosyncrasy and instrumental flourishes, but not at the expense of Shaw’s tenacity for combining casual despair with surrealist humour. Alluding to quick fixes via mindless consumerism is also a recurring theme: “I will risk slow death for Chinese” (‘Liberty Log’) “Am I part of the meal deal?” (‘Conservative Hell’.)

“This seems like a weird premise for a show, but I like it,” says a detached but assertive Shaw on ‘Liberty Log’, a cold and moody track that dabbles in themes of acceptance and hope. Shaw’s expressionless delivery has always been a divisive feature, and here she sounds more disinterested than ever. She’s relentlessly impassive (even when she sings, hums, sighs and scowls) and possesses a prowess for denoting absolute indifference. These streams of consciousness portray the total apathy we feel for modern life, but it’s not always easy to digest, especially when the world around us feels despondent, too.

That’s not to say that Stumpwork is a depressing album – at the heart lies curiosity and optimism – and Shaw momentarily abandons her ice-cold demeanour throughout. She even sings here, and often has a lot in common with the subtle, stony-faced rage of Baxter Dury’s vocal tirades. Lyrically, Stumpwork triumphs over anything produced by their contemporaries, but that might have been to the detriment of the music, which bravely evades the instrumental vitality of their debut. But it is an album rooted in grief – specifically the grief that comes from losing a loved one – and with that knowledge, Stumpwork suddenly makes a lot more sense.