Album number six from Sleaford Mods. Recorded in a three-week burst between lockdowns, Spare Ribs continues to push the Mods sound further forward whilst looking back. Simon Tucker reviews.
Release Date: 15th January 2021
Label: Rough Trade
Format: Vinyl / CD / Download
We don’t need to go through last year, do we? You were there. It was a year of extreme psychic trauma balanced by displays of human kindness. The battle lines were drawn even more clearly. Bright yellow highlighter pens marked out the haves and the have nots. The “lockdown stress” pushed people in a myriad of directions and through our grief we turned to nostalgia as a blanket of comfort. The flag swung as VE Day anniversary street parties highlighted how an event so momentous can be spun to whatever your political persuasion is. Music streaming figures dipped as people returned to radio listening, box set streaming and the comfort of our old favourite albums. The most visible manifestation of this being the Listening Parties organised by Tim Burgess. People gathered around their devices and felt communion through music. The touching of flesh via a digital connection. One of the main highlights of these Listening Parties was the chance to run through the back catalogue of the band we are here to discuss today, Sleaford Mods.
Traveling through the Mods oeuvre from 2013’s Austerity Dogs to last year’s compilation All That Glue was a revelation because even though you may be a fan of the band, it allowed you to actually sit back and absorb the progression of the band. Each release saw the band edge forward in both style and substance and you can pinpoint clear moments where the small steps became bigger leaps. 2014’s Divide And Exit saw the cementing of the rant in Jason Williamson’s vocal styles and saw the band connect to a wider audience. The next real pivotal moment comes with 2017’s English Tapas. This was where you sensed the duo were starting to really switch things up with Andrew Fearn’s music exploring deeper and richer textures and Williamson’s delivery style now morphing into a few new characters. The ‘Angry Rant Man’ was still there but now he was more nuanced and braver.
It may be a coincidence but since Williamson has quit the drink and drugs he has become a far more accomplished performer and frontman. He is now able to inhabit the roles of spokesman, caricature, rock star, poet, comedian..whichever one suits the narrative. Williamson will never ever have a problem with wordplay and with English Tapas you really could see him flourish. Then came 2019’s Eton Alive and this was where Fearn took the lead. Eton Alive was an astonishing leap forward sonically for the band and was Fearn’s first coherent, kaleidoscopic and dense work built for the bigger stages the band was now playing on.
Why was the run-through of the band’s past important when discussing their new long-player Spare Ribs? Well, it’s important because Spare Ribs is the first Sleaford Mods album that seems to deal in a thread of nostalgia which makes it stand apart from their previous releases. Jason Williamson has dealt before with his more recent past but on Spare Ribs we find him turning his pen to a past further back so we now get musings on his childhood and young adulthood and whilst his anger is still there this time it is mixed with typical childlike sensations such as boredom, romance and a sense of not belonging.
Make no mistake, Spare Ribs is where Sleaford Mods’ detractors will have to admit that they are one of the countries most vital SONGWRITERS, a label their critics seem to struggle with. On songs like Fishcakes and Mork N Mindy, Williamson taps into the vein of songwriters like Davies, Weller and Partridge, painting Englishness and youth in microscopic detail. The added element of Billy Nomates (Tor Maries) on Mork N Mindy really helps accentuate the song’s sense of alienation with her sublime verse that talks of “jokes not landing where they used to” and about people “not being from around here” helping to drive the songs intent home.
Of course, this being a Sleaford Mods album we get the usual barbed digs at politicians and other “class tourist” artists. Nudge It (featuring Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers) has the repeated refrain “stood outside a high rise acting like a gangster” – an obvious dig at a certain Bristol band whose video featured this exact scene – which comes to a very crystal clear peak on I Don’t Rate You. We also find Out There’s Worzel Gummidge imitating “mumble mumble.” Another sign (along with Eton Alive’s Big Bert which saw Williamson reference the cartoon Hey Duggie!) that behind the frontman lives the happy father of young children and keen observer of pop culture. The pandemic is referenced with the odd line about fauna regrowing and the sound of bird song but this isn’t an album full of lockdown talk (thankfully). Instead, the lyrics deal with what happened and continues to happen on a far deeper and psychological level looking to the past for signs of an emotional connection with the feelings of the present.
Nostalgia can also be heard in the music by Fearn. Now to make it clear for those in the back, we ain’t talking about a retreat into sounds from the band’s past. In fact, Spare Ribs continues the leap forward started on Eton Alive and sees Fearn firmly establish himself as one of the most vital and interesting musician/producers out there. No, nostalgia in reference to Andrew Fearn’s work on Spare Ribs is more to do with how sonically he seems to be tapping into vital musical movements/artists from the past. In 2020 we lost Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk so it is apt that in the same year we get the closest Fearn has gone to tapping into that early synth/electro movement with the brilliant Top Room and the aforementioned Fishcakes. Then there’s Thick Ear which throws the duo into the same airspace as Joy Division and the driving electronica of All Day Ticket slaps like a 90’s gabber grit teeth stomper. Even intro track New Bricks feels like a wink to the work of Mike Skinner only with a 2020 twist.
Aside from the maybe subconscious step into nostalgia, Spare Ribs is the band’s biggest and filthiest record to date cut through with songs that many younger than myself would term ‘bangers’. There’s a love of club culture on many of the songs here and even though the band is now playing on bigger stages which admittedly allows for bigger sound systems, Spare Ribs would be served better being played out from the stage of a filthy basement club. The album invokes smells of skunk, sweat and beer especially on songs like Elocution, Out There (which features a deliciously sleazy delivery by Williamson), Mork N Mindy and album highlights All Day Ticket and I Don’t Rate You (which we first heard during the band’s streamed gig from the 100 Club). It is these last two which will send the Smarmy wild when they finally get in a room together again.
Spare Ribs feels like the next logical leap forward by a band in a constant state of evolution. By tapping into the collective past, Sleaford Mods have made an album that paves a future. The band has always had a knack of tapping into the zeitgeist and making important albums in important times and now is when we need them the most. Spare Ribs is the album where you see the true character actor that is Williamson, truly play the roles he was born to play with his delivery switching up with each song; with Fearn, you find an artist fearless in their pursuit for progression. You never for one second feel like he is phoning in any of the instrumentals. Every note is from the heart and the gut. Spare Ribs is the album we will cling to wishing for a way out of this mess. It gives us a chance for escapism whilst dealing in reality….a trick no other band out there could pull off.
2021 finally has something good going for it…I should have know it would be Sleaford Mods who would be the ones to deliver it.