Bard On A Wire: Sleaford Mods’ Spare Ribs Reviewed

From Conservatism to consumerism, there's plenty in contemporary Britain to attract the lyrical ire of Jason Wiliamson. But, argues JR Moores, there's a lot more to Sleaford Mods than needlsharp commentary on the everyday present

"We really are turning into a nasty little country," exclaimed John Simm’s character in the 2018 BBC drama Collateral. Like the music of Nottingham lo-punk duo Sleaford Mods, David Hare’s telly programmes are not known for their subtlety. It’s a criticism that Hare might respond to with all the eruditeness of a professional playwright, and the Sleafords with another barrage of defiantly hearty curse words.

Is now the right time for subtlety? A nasty little country? It’s a fact that’s getting harder and harder to dispute. Tens of thousands of austerity deaths (and counting). The haunting memory of Grenfell Tower and its fatal cladding. The Windrush scandal. Food banks as far as the eye can see. The twin horrors of the COVID-19 crisis and Brexit bedlam only making matters worse. A pro-death-penalty Home Secretary with a black-belt certificate in actual bullying. Toby Young, Darren Grimes and Laurence Fox cunting around every TV channel and internet site as they pretend they’re being silenced.

When else in history have the purportedly censored sounded so unbearably loud? Political correctness – that fusty old Enlightenment idea of making an effort to treat people fairly and equally – is castigated as the worst possible tyranny imaginable. Any act of human kindness, however great or small, is dismissed immediately as "virtual signalling." Not even Marcus Rashford can save us now.

This is the sorry state into which Sleaford Mods’ latest album announces itself like a punch in the belly from a stubbly stranger outside the small Sainsbury’s. Recorded quickly under lockdown, the music feels urgent in an almost skeletal way. The very bass lines themselves groan and sigh with both exasperation and aggression. Crucially, they still contain just enough swing to get the old hips swaying from side to side. The beats are harsh, icy and precise, with extra electronic embellishments used slyly and sparingly. There are barnstorming guest performances too, from Billy Nomates and Amy Taylor from Amyl & The Sniffers.

As for Jason Williamson’s always engrossing lyrics, there is little point in quoting any of these gems directly. They might look great on paper but they have to be heard first-hand to be properly enjoyed and absorbed. A large part of the pleasure of hearing any Sleaford Mods album is in the sheer accumulation of Williamson’s poetic dismay, as well as the perfect positioning of a particularly cathartic rant or foamy mouthed slur.

Topics this time include being beaten down even lower by the seemingly endless grind of Tory rule, feeling alienated from one’s fellow British subjects because they are only too eager to scapegoat foreigners exactly as our rulers wish us to, the hollowness of material consumerism, inequality, homelessness and other assorted political, social, and mental miseries.

On a couple of tracks Williamson also takes aim at his imitators. Let’s not name any names. We know who he’s talking about. All those gobby faux-yobs who front below-average rock groups to undeserved acclaim, every one of them less witty, less imaginative, less qualified than Williamson. As he points out on ‘Elocution’, Williamson has watched these bands engage in über-yuppie networking activities to climb the greasy pole of the music industry. Spoiler alert: he finds it less than charming.

There are other juicy insults thrown in the direction of people including that absurd centibillionaire Elon Musk. In interviews Williamson has drawn parallels between the Tesla twonk and Henry Ford, and we all know where the latter’s sympathies lay. Imagine if that magnate cockswab had been on Twitter.

Phrases like "state-of-the-nation", "snapshots" and "…for our times" pop up a lot when you read about Sleaford Mods. That makes sense but it implies that the duo’s output may be pertinent yet somehow ephemeral, its relevance rather fleeting thanks to Williamson’s barrage of contemporary references and on-point observations. It’s not as if these will fly over the heads of listeners in future ages though. They’re likely to be able to look them up just as we can easily find out what Jonathan Swift is going on about when he mentions draymen or buff jerkins. There are also a couple of songs here during which Williamson draws on his memories of childhood and this suggests that maybe he has been thinking himself about how Sleaford Mods fit into a much longer tradition – or at least how to cleverly and poignantly expand his lyrical palette beyond the immediate present.

Rather than having turned into one, perhaps this always has been a nasty country beyond the occasional and gradual mark of progress such as indoor lavatories and the ready availability of peppers. It wasn’t always so little, mind, what with its celebrated empire, the rose-tinted memories of which will sink this sad old island.

As an indication of how quickly things move on, and yet at the same time do not, between ‘Shortcummings’ being recorded and this album’s release the subject of that song was finally booted from his role as chief advisor to the sherry-stained beanbag we call our current Prime Minister. But this is about more than one badly dressed Barnard Castle tourist. Dominic wasn’t the first eugenicist toffpot to be pulling the strings of power, and he isn’t going to be the last. There is a tragic universal truth in the output of Sleaford Mods that extends well beyond the now. It clearly doesn’t belong exclusively to our own time, and it will have resonance further down the ages, for theirs is a similar kind of prophetically bleak humour to that of the timeless Leonard Cohen:

Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows.

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