Sleaford Mods ride again! The neo punk duo has just released their tongue and cheeky titled English Tapas their follow up to the vitriol filled Key Markets. The new release generated a lot of anticipation based on the surprising success of “Key Markets” which became a popular sensation reaching #11 on the UK Album Charts in 2015. They also picked up a significant number of new fans, including the likes of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, and were one of the handful of bands that played at the iconoclastic artist Banksy’s Dismaland Bemusement Park in 2015.
Sleaford Mods continue with the same line up, driving frontman Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn backing him up with his sampling machines and other various musical devices. Prior to recording the pair came up with the title for the new release when they saw a blackboard menu outside a pub with the entry English Tapas which was described as “a finger food feast comprised of half a scotch egg, a cup of chips, pickle and a mini pork pie”. Williamson stated about the menu’s inspiration, “It says everything about this place (the UK) its comedy, its making do, its ignorance above all its rubbish.” A clear influence on the latest release was Williamson’s disappointment with the Labour Party especially the leadership. This was underlined by his being suspended from the membership before the Labour leadership election; he was notified in a letter that he was suspended for on line abuse. Another influence is his mellowing as a family man with two young children, causing him to describe himself as a tee totaling, drug free, buggy pusher. But before you think Williamson has turned all soft and cuddly think again, The Mods with English Tapas continue to tilt at windmills with equal parts unmitigated anger and irreverent humor. Meanwhile on the sonic side Andrew Fearn the quiet half of the pair has on “English Tapas” has created even more exciting and textured ways to accompany Williamson’s palpable venom.
On “English Tapas” the duo continues with their prescient observations about the state of the UK. Those observations are couched in their own special blend of English crossness and black humor. There is a toning down on explicatives but anger and disillusionment still fill the lyrics of each song. For those who wondered if the duo could pull off another impressive effort sonically and thematically rest assured the release is just as confrontational and refreshing as their 2015 release. UK society and politicians seems to have been working overtime to provide fodder for the Mods with the referendum on Brexit among many current events transpiring. Never a duo to pull punches they again lay into all sides of the political spectrum as each side contributes to the morass that is UK politics. The listener will find on “English Tapas” a down to earth judgment on the most recent cant and inconsequentialness of our era.
In my 2015 review of Key Markets I stated that The Sleaford Mods were a fearless Cassandra of our age. As events took place throughout the two year period between albums the political environment continued to spin off of control with David Cameron’s Prime Ministership and Brexit, I found myself wondering what nascent observations Williamson and Co would express on their next effort. What arrived with the release of “English Tapas” was an album with fewer rants and a more focused narrative. Additionally Williamson’s mood seemed to change from outright completely vindicated anger and madness to a slightly lower key existential pragmatism. He has progressed from mad Jeremiads to pondering why we bother at all when the game is so obviously rigged. On “Key Markets” there was a call to wake up and create change where in contrast English Tapas seems to relate a weary acceptance that England is populated by unprincipled, greedy amoral citizens willing to betray belief and each other at a drop of a hat. The question on the release becomes not what can solve the problems as much as how to deal with the fresh hell that heads the average person’s way each day. This dark theme is only alleviated on the release by gallows humor that is like a guilty pleasure one doesn’t necessarily like to admit to but enjoys all the same.
The minimalist post punk track Army Nights starts the festivities. The unrelenting bass backs lyrics about the ever present hatred of success that is a special element of the British character. The song is trademark Mods as they condemn the excuse that doing as ordered without thinking about the consequences is acceptable. “Army Nights” is a splendid bridge from “Key Markets” and the great punk vibe is not to be missed. Just Like We Do is a more sonically polished song which goes after the clueless ivory tower experts who think up impossible solutions in a vacuum. It points out the hypocrisy of the smug “know it all” who has all the answers but knows none of the questions. Also damned are the lemmings that mindlessly follow them. The selection Moptop has a fantastic high energy accompaniment that reminds me of the Cure’s “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”. The track makes the point that it was not that long ago that all it took to protest conformity was a haircut and being a mod. The song is well structured and a nice progression for the duo.
Messy Anywhere is probably at the top of my list of favorite tracks on the album. The nicely developed texture in the accompaniment is welcomed with another phenomenal bass track putting the funk in punk. The song excoriates limitless hedonism and the manufactured need to endlessly chasing materialism’s perfection and status, “First it is this, then it is that”. The theme propounds the adage that if you find the perfect place you're very presence will problem mess it up. On Time Sands it is again striking how expanded The Mod’s sound palette had become. This track is a glichy wonder loaded with polyrhythms galore. The lyrics take on the theme of what zombies we become repeating the same routine day after day until we are numb, it is another arresting track.
When it comes to insight it doesn’t get better than Snout. This hip hop influenced track again goes after how we surrender to materialism and the inconsequential. Williamson nails the thinking with the lyric, “I don’t give my kids anything to be embarrassed about” speaking to having all the right logos and items for the kiddies while not teaching them what really matters. Additionally on the track Williamson calls out how the idea of “National Pride” was propagandized to sell Brexit utilized it as a red herring so to distract from the major drawbacks of the referendum. Drayton Manored examines how we give in to the cookie cutter entertainment experiences such as amusement parks, where we know we are being manipulated to empty our wallets yet everyone does it. It goes a step further pointing out we are all sheeple conforming to some dictate to do these mad things.
It is on the second half of the album that Williamson really hits his stride taking on the current day controversies in the UK and not pulling any punches. He takes on how we are so easily led and how badly served we are by our government either by the governing party which seems utterly clueless and loaded with greed or the ineffective opposition. Continuing on with the theme from “Snout, Carlton Touts begins with a great punk guitar riff. The song then proceeds to dive into the uselessness of the Labour party and Williamson begging for the neo progressives to be more effective in forming a functioning opposition. He also decries the ineffectiveness of both sides of the political spectrum damning them both but almost being more disgusted with Labour because they should know better.
High energy Ska influenced Cuddly is a fantastic track. The song addresses how the “haves” are kicking down the ladder of upward mobility to secure their gains. They try to cover up their petty meanness by offering the underprivileged shillings and blankets but no real help while spraining their elbows praising themselves for their charity. But Williamson predicts the” have not’s “are getting wise to the game and see through the misdirection. He predicts the end for the “haves” could happen very unexpectedly. They are only fooling themselves if they think largesse will protects them, a thought best expressed in the lyrical aside, “you ain’t that fucking cuddly”.
Dull continues on much the same theme attempting to focus the average person on the fact they are being gas lit into silence all the while being subdued by today’s version of bread and circuses to distract from the truth. Take note to how Fearn changes up the sonics on the track with a great clop clop tempo that is engaging.
BHS underlines the contempt that the “haves” possess for those who have faithfully believed the lies they served. These poor individuals are loyal only to have the rug snatched out from under them. Williamson aptly vilifies the deserving Sir Philip Green for his betrayal of BHS pensioners. The song again not only attacks the betrayal of the pensioners of the BHS but also Brexit with lyrics like, “able bodied vultures monitor and pick at us.” There is a grim humor to the track that underlines the evil perpetrated upon trusting individuals.
The final song is a real change up of sorts for The Mods. On I Feel So Wrong Williamson is almost singing instead of his usual vocal approach. It feels like the most personal he has ever gotten on a song. There is a great R&B keyboard treatment and the song abruptly ends; bringing a superb follow up release to a close.
As always with Mods releases you need to center your attention to take everything in, every moment of the recording is filled with meaning. It takes numerous passes to catch the turns of phrase in the lyrics and there are many aha moments that occur with numerous listens. With English Tapas the duo has stepped up their game yet again, offering insightful lyrics while enriching their sonics. The Sleaford Mods are not for those who can’t face confrontation, but are a comfort of sorts to many people looking for the validation that they are not the only ones identifying the madness of our age. The Mods provide that confirmation that you are not alone in your indignation. On “Key Markets” Williamson frighteningly predicted the future and with English Tapas he may have done so again. These modern day Cassandras are shouting from the bridge, the question is will we listen and do something this time.