Sleaford Mods are taking the piss, and they’re very good it. They’ll take the piss out of everyone, from Blur guitarist Graham Coxon (described on new album track ‘Flipside’ as looking “like a left-wing Boris Johnson”) to themselves (the first vocal on ‘Eton Alive’ is a belch) and even poor old NME (they slagged us off on their enjoyable 2017 album ‘English Tapas’).
They’re often described as a political band, and the duo – comprised of shouting frontman Jason Williamson and minimalist beatmaker Andrew Fearn – can certainly be eloquent in interviews, denouncing Brexit or the political class that engineered it. But actually the music’s more oblique than that. They’re not Idles (often the object of Williamson’s ire) who write out-and-out protest songs about the forces that divide the country. This record, like its four predecessors, trades in gallows humour that just so happens to be delivered in a working-class voice. It’s Modern Toss set to music. When Williamson half-sings on ‘When You Come Up To Me’, it’s intentionally funny because it’s earnestly inept.
So there are no great state of the nation addresses here, but there are good stand-up routines about running scams in manual jobs (‘Discourse’), ingratiating yourself with someone else’s family (‘Subtraction’) and having one more bin than the Council has allocated (‘Policy Cream’). For the most part, ‘Eton Alive’ sounds politicised only because we’re now so unaccustomed to hearing people from council estates make popular music that isn’t aspirational. There’s a reason the video for ‘Kebab Spider’ depicts uncouth blokes chanting.
Fearn’s arrangements are more sophisticated than ever before, the bassy groove of ‘Big Burt’ (“Shelling out 1500 pound to see an ‘asbeen who can’t even do three gigs in one go – what’s that?) sounding like an actual song. And ‘Top It Up’, with an ominous synth line, veers into art-pop territory. This indicates the polish that success has afforded Sleaford Mods (on ‘OBCT’ Williamson admits he lives “in a house three times the size of my old one” and drives past “Oliver Bonas in the Chelsea tractor”). But they’ve not changed. They’re still taking the piss.
Sometimes a joke starts wearing thin, but goes on so long that it comes back around. And ‘Eton Alive’ is a pretty great punchline. Not everything has to be escapist or explicitly political – sometimes you just want to hear people make gags about a world that you recognise. It’s cathartic, it’s entertaining. It says: you exist. ‘Eton Alive’ makes Sleaford Mods funny again.