2023 is still relatively young, yet already it is proving to be a year of challenges. Ongoing war. Crippling inflation. Food bank dependency. Austerity hangover. Unparalleled energy prices. A rigid and unresponsive political class. Enduring post-Brexit lassitude and Division. Many people are upset, angry, disappointed and feel disaffected. Sounds like the perfect, if unwanted, backdrop for a Sleaford Mods album.
Enter Jason Williamson – interrogator supreme and roarer of rhyme for the Nottingham duo. “The rot’s set in. It’s trampled into our consciousness. We have become as one with the Conservative Party… servants of this really bleak sort of Aldi nationalism.” This is UK Grim.
Sleaford Mods once described themselves as delivering “electronic munt minimalist punk-hop rants for the working class and under”, and who am I to argue. It’s a simple setup – Williamson masterminds the words, and Andrew Fearn handles musical arrangements. Throughout their career, they have covered topics such as unemployment, capitalism, pop culture, modern working life, celebrities, and society in general.
Their music is simple yet complex. It’s thoughtful entertainment with a healthy whack of anger and critical discourse. They leave themselves nowhere to hide, nor do they want to. The duo has not strayed from this effective and successful formula with their seventh album (twelfth if you include earlier rarities), UK GRIM.
The album kicks off with the title track ‘UK GRIM’ and immediately sets the tone. Fearn provides a pulsating beat, evoking a feeling of anxiety. It is reminiscent of the sound of your vessels pumping in your ears when your blood pressure hits the roof. The track examines a broken country, one which is out of control. “Because in England, no one can hear you scream/You’re just fu**ed lads” spits Williamson. There’s a hint of resignation in his delivery. This song also has a superb video to accompany it. The duo approached artist and satirist, Cold War Steve, to create a visual representation of the song. And what a superb job he did! Do yourself a favour and check it out if you’ve not seen it.
Next off the rank is ‘D.I.Why’ and sees Williamson at his acerbic best. The song focuses on the online battles he has had with various bands from the DIY punk music scene. Williamson had quite a heated and well-documented feud with the Bristol band, IDLES. He accused them of class appropriation and branded them as “harmless idiots”. No doubt some of this has soaked into the lyrics for this song. “You look like Fred Dibnah and your haircut’s crap/You’re in a shouty band and you’re not original, man/You’re like the edgy version of something shit”, a lairy Williamson declares. Just when you think he’s done, he follows this up with “I saw a doctor and I said, “Why do I feel like slapping these B&M goths?/All this post-punk dross/ He said, “Because they’re fu**ing c*nts, Jason; fu**ing hit ‘em”. Surly and articulate, it is certainly to the point.
‘Force 10 from Navarone’ sees Fearn pumping out some filthy beats. Although Williamson may attract the lion’s share of focus as the frontman, Fearn’s contribution is equally valuable and acts as a perfect support for Williamson’s sprechgesang. They are like a two-part epoxy resin – you need both parts to create something stronger.
Florence Shaw from Dry Cleaning lends her vocal talents to this track and helps to create a dark, ghoulish feel. Her voice sounds pure, but you know there’s something lurking in the shadows, waiting to attack. This isn’t adding a guest singer just because they can. It adds to the atmosphere of the track and takes it up a notch.
In contrast, the spiky, aggressive, 170bpm ‘Tilldipper’ follows. This is Fearn in full-on hard techno mode. Williamson looks at those folk who swindle from the till in shops, bars and restaurants. However, knowing how angry he is with the current state of play in the UK, this could be taken as a metaphor for those at the top who take from us without scrutiny or consequence. Focus on the little people taking a tenner, not the fat cat taking millions.
‘On The Ground’ sees Williamson looking at the consequences of the keyboard warrior when they meet the target of their ire in real life. It is clear he has had enough of the crap he’s taken online, albeit he does take ownership of his part in it. Covid lockdown, when much of this album was written, seems to have taken its toll. People had nothing better to do, faced numerous challenges and the internet gave many a release valve. Musically, it has a feel of 80s electronica after a shot of the ‘roids.
‘Right Wing Beast’ sees anger moving back towards a more familiar theme. Supported by a nagging, but catchy, composition from Fearn, Williamson takes aim at the elite and those who support them, especially the working class. “But what’s gone on?/What can I see?/You’re all getting mugged by the aristocracy/ But what’s gone on?/What can I see?/You’re all getting mugged by the Right Wing Beast”, he delivers with an element of disbelief.
It is the skill of Williamson that he cuts through the noise and presents us with a diagnosis of a nation that is moving towards life support. He holds a mirror up to a society that has lost the plot. All delivered in an East Midlands accent. This is explored in ‘Smash Each Other Up’. People are beyond stretched. Their needs are nurtured in an ‘All for one and sod the rest’ attitude. Survival of the fittest. This brings aggression to the forefront. Williamson sums this up simply, pronouncing, “Everybody’s getting well narky”, as Fearn engages us with a slow, pondering, throbbing beat.
‘Don’, for me the weakest link in this otherwise robust chain, delivers a threatening and haunting soundscape as we hear the story of a recovering addict’s nostalgia for drugs. This is followed by ‘So Trendy’, which features Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro and Perry Farrell – the latter on rap duty. Williamson said this is a track he is “very wary of… a really weird track”. I can’t disagree with this assessment. Musically, it has an excellent track which is punctuated by some wonderful splats of electronic noise. It exists in a paradoxical state: it is both very much a Sleaford Mods track and equally not a Sleaford Mods track at all.
‘I Claudius’ is underpinned with a haunting, hip-hop vibe. Williamson picks apart what patriotism means. Who sets the guidelines for this and what are their objectives? Who truly benefits? “Maybe I’m proud of the horrible grey streets and the shit weather and the stupid fashions I find myself investing in. It’s just the English we’re proud of being is absolutely nothing like the authorities want to try and promote”, declared Williamson previously. It is this very angle that he explores with this track.
Raising the tempo further with this 180 bpm track, ‘Pit2Pit’ has a beautiful punk riff running throughout. Williamson touches upon the ‘stupid fashions’ he invests in (and who wears it better) and considers the strange behaviours people developed during the lockdown. It was a strange time for many. For some, it had serious negative effects. Others blossomed at having their pace of life enforcedly slowed.
Fearn delivers yet another masterclass of sonic representation of emotion with ‘Apart From You’. He delivers a soundscape that evokes confusion, anxiety and loneliness. There’s a beautiful piano line that appears throughout the track that bounces along the musical surface like a skipping stone on a river. It perfectly fits the narrative of the song, an admission of existential loneliness. Williamson examines how we move around in spaces without the need for human contact despite it being a necessity for humans as social creatures. How can we be surrounded by so many people and yet be completely alone, without verbal interaction or the touch of another’s skin?
We move to a very different part of the spectrum next with ‘Tory Kong’. There is a fast tribal beat which is unrelenting from start to finish. At first, it is a fun, lively rhythm. I then realise I am becoming uncomfortable listening to it as it rumbles on. Finally, I feel as if I am Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, strapped into a chair, eyelids clamped open as I undergo the Ludovico technique of aversion therapy. Uncomfortable is not the word. Yet despite the discomfort being inflicted upon me, I want to hear it again. I may have been brainwashed (not that there’s much to wash, to be fair).
‘Rhythms Of Class’ closes the album and it is a good choice, bookending nicely with ‘UK GRIM’. Over a hip-hop beat, Williamson finds himself doing his very best Ian Dury impersonation. Fine by me. I love a bit of Dury.
The song delves into the concept of class and the imbalance it creates in society. “Everybody knows when the door still says it’s closed that it opens up for lots of fu**ing others/The signs flip round on a string, the light beams down, that’s it/Serving up double quiche in the gutters”, asserts Williamson. It reminds me of a song by The Proclaimers called ‘What School’. They sang “What school did you go to?” which sounds like “Where did you spend your teenage days?”/But “What school did you go to?” doesn’t mean what it says”. School ties, regiments and funny handshakes.
Sleaford Mods have seen growing commercial success over recent years. Their last album, Spare Ribs, gained a critical response and a Top 5 chart place. I fully expect UK GRIM to equal or better that. It is a very strong album comparable to a high-quality sausage – all meat and no filler. I can see several of these becoming live performance staples. In a world filled with chaos, nonsense, division and unfairness, it is good to know there is a man who will snarl at it like an angry German Shepherd, taking a few healthy chunks of flesh for good measure, while another chap lays down proper mad musical compositions that attack your internal organs. We need Sleaford Mods. The voice of sanity and reason is alive and well and living in Nottingham. Viva le East Midlands!
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