Some might say that in these darkest of times we could all use a little escapism – but not Sleaford Mods. And perhaps they have a point. Where does it really get you? Your problems will still be there when you get out of the bath, blow out your scented candles and turn off that Max Richter playlist.
New album ‘Spare Ribs’ (their sixth album proper as a duo, but 11th when you count deeper cuts) was recorded in a three-week window between lockdowns last year. “And we’re all so Tory-tired / And beaten by minds small,” frontman Jason Williamson sing-speaks on experimental intro track ‘A New Brick’, summing up the fatigue of living too long under a dark Conservative cloud. The album title, Williamson has explained, comes from “the idea of the amount of people that died from the first wave of coronavirus; human lives are always expendable to the elites… We’re in a constant state of being spare ribs”.
That said, the album does not see them buckle under all the gloom. While rooted in the everyday fury and monotony of what we’ve all had to endure, there’s a lot more light and variety on here than anything that the Nottingham duo have ever put to tape before.
Instrumentalist Andrew Fearn’s work is often erroneously described as ‘minimalist’, his work badly underrated. In fact, he creates intricate and immersive grooves that most rhythm sections would envy – these are perfect backbone jams for his partner’s kitchen sink horrorshow lyricism. Look no further than the cyclical, bassy flow of recent single ‘Shortcummings’, with Williamson predicting the downfall of Boris Johnson’s former Barnard Castle-bothering Gollum-in-chief Dominic Cummings: “He’s gonna mess himself so much, but it’s all gonna come down hard”.
Call it ‘pared-back’ if you will, but there’s a lot going on here. There’s gnarly danciness to the title track that recalls LCD Soundsystem’s debut album, while ‘Nudge It’ marries an attack on dull, vulturous class tourists “stood outside a high-rise / Trying to act like a gangster” with jagged post-punk riffs, bouncing hip-hop loops and snarling bravado courtesy of guest vocalist Amy Taylor of Aussie punks Amyl & The Sniffers.
Taylor breathes a new life into the Mods’ world, as does another rare guest turn from fellow East Midlander Billy Nomates (aka Tor Maries), who lends her cool-as-fuck laissez faire drawl to ‘Mork N Mindy”s gothic, electro tale of boredom and alienation in beige suburbia, wryly noting: “You’re not from round here, crashed landed about a week ago / Yeah, I feel for you, I do”.
Williamson’s gallows humour is on top form throughout ‘Spare Ribs’. The Prodigy-inspired ‘I Don’t Rate You’ is gleefully bilious (“I hate what you do / And I don’t like you”), while on the bouncy ‘Elocution’ he feigns Received Pronunciation to tear down posh fair-weather bands “secretly hoping that by agreeing to talk about the importance of independent venues”, they’ll never have to play them again. And then comes the sledgehammer putdown chorus: “I wish I had the time to be a wanker just like you”. Ouch.
Lockdown stress spills over on the anxious and claustrophobic ‘Top Room’ and eerie album centrepiece ‘Out There’. The latter is a perfectly tragicomic painting of our Plague Island, occupied by children crying into their cereal and COVID-conspiracy racists boozing outside the shops, with Williamson’s catchy new slogan “let’s get Brexit fucked by a horse’s penis”. Put that on the side of the bus.
‘Spare Ribs’ is driven by what comedian Stewart Lee – a friend of the band – recently described to NME as Williamson’s “powerless rage”, but there’s still space for a little beauty. ‘Fishcakes’ closes the record with heart and tenderness as the frontman looks back on making the most of the simple things as a kid: “And when it mattered – and it always did – at least we lived”. ‘Spare Ribs’ is the first truly great album of the year, and the best of the Mods’ career. How many acts could say that of their 11th record (if we’re counting those deep cuts)? The Fall, arguably? It’s some achievement.
Williamson and Fearn unflinchingly show you life – particularly the shittier corners of it, while flashing a swift middle finger at those who create them. Here’s your prescribed dose of reality with an unmistakable and intoxicating Sleaford Mods flavour. The extraordinary ‘Spare Ribs’ is graffiti on a concrete wall; there’s no manifesto, no easy answers and nowhere to hide.
Release date: January 15
Record label: Rough Trade