The Fall

Sub-Lingual Tablet

Fall gigs over the past year or so have seen the band on form, aided and abetted by a second drummer who seemed to be treating his kit as a means of overcoming a nervous breakdown through gymnastics. There’s a strange alchemy to The Fall live that will always make them compelling, yet with a line-up that has been stable since 2007, it’s hard not to look back over a period that covers a quarter of The Fall’s history and ask, what exactly has been achieved?

I’d of course still rather go and watch Mark E Smith, Elena and the hod carriers than Brix and the assorted former members currently taking a trip down the nostalgia trail. In many ways Sub-Lingual Tablet is, like any Fall album will be, a stranger and superior record than most released in any given year. But by The Fall’s own standards, this time that’s just not good enough.

Those recent gigs had suggested that Mark E Smith’s long-standing enthusiasm for a Can-inspired experimentalism might shape The Fall’s 31st album. It’s certainly present on the high point, the eight minute ‘Auto Chip 2014-15’, a track that frustrates largely because it proves just how incredible The Fall still might be. It appears already rolling along with a glorious sense of purpose, a rockabilly twang to the guitar that reaches across the Atlantic to the Autobahn between Dusseldorf and Cologne, Germany 1973. It’s Smith’s best vocal performance in ages as he moves commandingly from staccato declamation to imperious croon to cackle and snarl. "How bad are English musicians?" he growls. The trouble is, The Fall’s at the moment are too good. They’re capable, muscular, increasingly boring. It’s hard not to think of the times when a radical personnel overhaul has resulted in The Fall making some of their best work – the late 90s, for instance, around the underrated The Marshal Suite or the arrival of ‘The Americans’ in 2006. The track fades out again, as if on the way to somewhere else. A far better Fall album, perhaps.

There are other fragments of invention scattered throughout Sub-Lingual Tablet. ‘Black Door’ has a whistling lo-fi melody made from a few keyboard notes and a simple declining bass riff that anchors a groove that shouldn’t be there but rolls nicely anyway. Unfortunately, it’s only one minute and 46 seconds long. Similarly, ‘Dedication Not Medication’ opens confidently with the sort of fearsome bass chug that made 2005 track ‘Blindness’ not only one of the best Fall tracks of their recent repertoire, but also of their entire career. But any punishing directness, so ably harnessed by Smith in ‘Blindness’, slips from his grasp and a great idea is merely used as the backing for a recorded conversation about The Fall and Smith muttering "curly whirly how could you prescribe?" What could have been a late period Fall classic becomes a pretty poor skit.

‘Snazzy’ sees a brief two-and-a-half minute flirt with jazz and is great, but feels like the start of a sketch that could have been taken further. There’s also much to love about ‘Pledge”s fizzing glam, but ‘Junger Cloth’ and ‘Stout Man’ are forgettable bluster. Now we’ve got the Fat White Family doing Fall-influenced garage sleaze so brilliantly, what’s the point? Right now I’d rather listen to ‘I Am Mark E Smith’ than Mark E Smith.

There’s enough, perhaps, to give The Fall the benefit of the doubt, something that we Fall fans and reviewers have had a guilty habit of doing in recent years. Unfortunately, there’s one track on Sub-Lingual Tablet that suggests that currently the hand on the tiller is shaky indeed. ‘Fibre Book Troll’ begins in what sounds like rehearsal room demo form, Smith barking "I want a Facebook troll! I want a fucking Facebook troll" and rattles on and on and on and on and on for well over ten minutes. The Fall’s belligerence when it comes to record labels is long to be be admired (remember those banners that read ‘What Domino wants, Domino shall have’) but no other group would be able to get away with expecting people to pay for crap like this.

This is the root of the problem with The Fall in 2015. I’ve always seen Mark E Smith not as leader of The Fall but as some kind of custodian of it as a quasi-mythical idea he chanced upon in his preternaturally smart, self-taught teenage brain in late 70s Prestwich. He was after all not the singer but the guitarist when the group started. He saw what The Fall could become, and did was was necessary to make it so. That’s why Smith has sacrificed so much, his health as much as other band members, to the group. It’s why when at their finest The Fall can still be transcendent. It’s why it’s not hyperbole to say they’ve changed lives, mine included. But over the past few albums The Fall have sounded like The Fall doing a pastiche of the past few Fall albums, all pugilism and no flair. If we can think back to the crunching digital brilliance of The Unutterable, or or the twisted broken electronics of Von Sudenfed (The Fall in all but name), the iconoclastic Clash-fan-upsetting final gig at the Hammersmith Palais in 2007 it’s clear that they are not necessarily a spent force. But this is now spread over a 15 year period which, if you look at The Fall’s progress and output from 1976 to 1991 or 1991 to 2006, is not encouraging.

Perhaps this constant reinvention and repurposing is too much to expect, but The Fall have always been the one group you could ask the world of and get it, because you could always trust Smith to do right by this odd entity he looks after. Sub-Lingual Tablet seems intended as an acerbic swipe at how social media and the internet relates to music, but much of the attack is blunted by just how stuck they are – The Fall’s obstinacy is starting to feel like less of a virtue. If Mark E Smith is to avoid becoming the Keith Floyd of post punk, change is needed. Dedication not medication, indeed – time for a purge.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today