A False Ending? Fat White Family’s Forgiveness Is Yours Reviewed

Each Fat White Family album feels like their last, says J R Moores, but if this one genuinely is, here are some ideas for singer Lias Saoudi

In the 1980s bets were made on how soon Blixa Bargeld was likely to die. Many predicted that his Bad Seeds bandmate, Nick Cave, wouldn’t survive that decade either. Once a speed-quaffing sonic terrorist, the 65-year-old Bargeld of today is a mischievously dry-witted gourmand. He braises cabbage on YouTube from his tastefully bourgeois kitchen. He journals the fancy European restaurants he visits on tour. What’s more, Einstürzende Neubauten, the group Bargeld co-founded in 1980, are still making more vital music than most of their peers.

Suffice to say, the singer and mouthpiece-in-chief of Fat White Family, Lias Saoudi, is not rock’s first hedonistic nihilist to simmer down. Nor will he be the last. As much as he rails against formula and convention, the path followed by Saoudi has been well-trodden. This is no bad thing. Do all of the drugs. Do fewer drugs. Consider doing zero drugs, bar those prescribed by the general practitioner (if you can get an appointment). Eventually, take up gardening. The frisson of fascination with Adolf Hitler begins to wane. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Success? Success is survival. Survival? Survival’s been done. Self-destruction? That one’s been done as well. So, too, has whatever we call the in between scenario, for example the Otley coffee shop managed by Tony from Terrorvision. There is always the scope to sing one of these old numbers in a slightly different key.

The articles he wrote over lockdown weren’t solely a way for Saoudi to keep himself busy and earn a few pennies when gigs were out of the question. He has also described them as the formative stage of his "exit strategy". Aspirations of a literary life beckon him towards middle age, luring him away from the mosh pits where he writhes around on mushrooms, all greased up in a pair of flesh-coloured Spanx.

Saoudi recently said he’d like to be the chief food critic for establishment newspaper, The Times. (Don’t we all?) The new AA Gill? Saoudi might have to branch out from his admirably single-minded routine of writing solely about Bolognese, which is a pity. Nevertheless, it’s a future appointment that could make the epicurious Blixa Bargeld smile, wryly.

To say Fat White Family are no strangers to turbulence is like saying Joanna Newsom is no stranger to the harp or Gary Barlow no stranger to greed. Each of their albums to date has felt like it could be their grand, erratic and self-immolating final statement. Those who complain that Fat Whites’ recorded output has rarely hit the peaks of their wildest live performances fail to understand that the band essentially view the studio and the stage as separate art forms. Two bands for the price of one. Several bands more, if you tot up their hundred different line-up changes.

Saul Adamczewski has left the band. He does this every album. This time, we are told, the withdrawal is permanent. The guitarist wanted to take their sound in a radically different direction, along the lines of the abstract space-drone epic, ‘Worms’, with which the group opened their sets around the time of their slot supporting Liam Gallagher at Knebworth. Adamczewski insisted that no words should be added to the extended, Glenn Branca-inspired soundscapes they’d been working on. That would’ve been an even riskier career move than usual. It was never gonna fly. Has Saul met any singers? Is he aware of the average frontperson’s unquenchable thirst to be seen, heard and exponentially heightened in any given mix?

It was especially unlikely now the singer has become so interested in prose. This has, with Adamczewski’s departure, fed into the material on Forgiveness Is Yours. It opens with ‘The Archivist’; one of several spoken-word passages. The most striking of these occurs when Saoudi adopts the voice of his elder brother, recounting the time he was taken to the mountains of Algeria, at the age of five, for an unanaesthetised circumcision. Set to a Miles Davis funk-period backing rumble, the story is vividly nightmarish and darkly humorous. ("Who goes book shopping by convoy? . . . Maybe this is just Muslim Christmas or something?") ‘Today You Become Man’ might be the more powerful thing Fat White Family have ever recorded. You wouldn’t want to dance to it, mind.

As for the poppiest songs, with their mixture of pastoral orchestration and disco synthwork, filtered through the Fat Whites’ innate wonkiness, they resemble the Pet Shop Boys recovering from a traumatic camping expedition with Geoff Tipps from The League Of Gentlemen. Likewise, the elegant final number feels like peeling the skin from Noel Coward’s face to find yourself confronted by the rotten-toothed grin of Papa Lazarou.

As well as growing lusher, the band’s sound has become denser thanks to several layers of carefully constructed multiple instrumentation, so pieces like ‘Polygamy Is Only For The Chief’ sound like a Prince impersonator fronting Depeche Mode. "Did you ever get the feeling that nobody’s listening for a very good reason?", it asks. More people than ever might be drawn into listening now that, for instance, ‘Feed The Horse’ has a soaring chorus that would be suitable emanating from the mouth of Charlotte Church. The equivalent on ‘What’s That You Say’ is the catchiest earworm they’ve ever created.

‘Words’, meanwhile, has the rousing strings and pumping tempo that would soundtrack a montage of someone in sweatbands training for an important sports biopic denouement. This one lies behind another fallout, between Lias and his brother, Nathan, who was its principal writer and wanted to front it. Again, was that ever gonna fly? Has he met any singers, etc.

The smoothest song on Forgiveness Is Yours is ‘Religion For One’. The Fat Whites’ version of a lounge ballad, it’s not a million miles away from what Arctic Monkeys have been doing of late, albeit with greater emphasis on failure, pain, humiliation and resentment.

Speaking of which, as well as insinuating that each Fat Whites record could be their swansong, Saoudi sees himself as one of history’s last rock stars, which seems short-sighted. At the risk of sounding like the once-urgent lyricist turned mainstream festival bore, Alex Turner, rock & roll will never die. It mutates. It is cyclical. It shrinks and then swells like a leathery pufferfish. It repeats itself. Young musicians make similar mistakes and commit to the same clichés as countless others did prior. When he himself was younger, Saoudi devoured the music, literature and tabloid antics of Pete & Carl. If The Libertines’ dire lack of substance didn’t terminate rock & roll for good, what else will? A succession of ill-fated 27-year-olds didn’t kill it. This Is Spinal Tap didn’t kill it. The rave scene didn’t kill it. Try as it might, Andrew Watt’s overenthusiastic production solutions for bumping The Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam up the Spotify algorithms won’t kill it either. Someone out there, right now, is listening to the Fat White Family discography while reading their biography, Ten Thousand Apologies, and they will turn out to be the next Iggy Pop. Mark my own arrogant words.

Current scientific warnings notwithstanding, one of the reasons humanity has always considered the end of the world to be pressingly imminent is because our brains find it so difficult to confront our inevitable passing as an individual, as well as the idea that life will carry on just fine without us. We reconcile this by placing ourselves at the centre, or rather the end, of the entire planet’s ridiculously long story. Saoudi has simply reapplied this mindset to the world of rock & roll.

"How do you prevent yourself from becoming a burnt-out rock star?" asked Blixa Bargeld, rhetorically, in The South Bank Show‘s documentary on Nick Cave. "Well, there are several solutions for that," he continued. "First of all, never become a rock star. Then, second is just notice that there’s another life except being a rock star. That helps a lot. And the third thing is don’t burn. I mean, I choose ‘B’. And, I guess, Nick chose ‘B’ as well. Still burns, but noticing there is another life."

After a decade in the greasy game, Saoudi is weighing up his options. What comes next? He could duet with Kylie Minogue or whoever’s her modern equivalent. (Sabrina Carpenter?) He could become an agony aunt for his adoring fans. Why not attend a coronation? Because who would want to be so "spectacularly incurious" as to turn it down on the grounds of, let’s say, dignity and integrity?

He could move to a remote Scottish farm like Paul McCartney, with whom he identifies despite channelling the spirit of a different Beatle on track two of this album (‘John Lennon’). AA Gill? How about the next Wings? Nothing wrong with that. Film some insurance adverts. Host a show on 6Music. Learn the piano.

Just don’t forget to burn, baby, burn, baby, burn, baby, BURN!

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