The vitriolic Nottingham duo returns to form after a short revue with Key Markets, an album probably meant to take aim at some notion of consumerism. Does this represent the bitter taste at the back of lyricist John Williamson’s throat following the commercial success of its predecessor, Divide And Exit, the 2014 outpouring of bile to universal acclaim that brought Sleaford Mods not only into the national spotlight, but turned them into music industry buzzwords on the international stage?
Probably. It’s hard to make out – Williamson’s lyrics stagger in jagged, unfocused zigzags like a blinded bull. Williamson quickly falls into a droll, irritated hum, akin to a mass of hornets not quite disturbed enough to leave their nest. With Andrew Fearn’s stripped back instrumentation, kit and a wet, sloppy kiss of a bass, the album rolls over you like a train over tracks, creates a drone, a haze, and sends you off, that sound-blocking you do at your retail job to avoid thinking too hard about your bleak at best future in a receding economy.
That’s admirable in itself, you could say: the new Sleaford Mods’ album is the experience of hopelessness. These guys claim to speak the truth, and speak the truth they do in Key Markets, lovingly fleshing out the humiliation of the British lower class. But this time the portrait is one without desperation and without illumination. ‘Tarantula: deadly cargo-o-o-o…’ It’s a drone, a static, a shut down. The steep slopes of British classism are literally murder of late and there’s something to be said for anyone opening their mouths against it, for voices that speak beyond the wealthy gatekeepers of knowledge (and this reviewer knows sharp as you like that their language does not), but it’s bullshit in the face of misaimed babbling, arguments for the sake of the fight, and – in this offering – unstimulating music. Because that’s what every class wants, isn’t it, Mr Williamson? Key Markets suggests the stimulation the Sleaford Mods peddle is sold much easier in the front row of their shows, with fists and spit and oi, than in a nice plastic wrapped disc or transmitted through the cloud.
And that is definitely encouraged: get out to a Sleaford Mods show and bounce up and down joining in with the ‘oi oi!’s and ‘MIDDLE!’ – unless you’re a little queer like me, or anything else not white and male and straight in denim, in suits, in which case the Sleaford Mods don’t speak for you. Not to say they speak against you, just not for you; it’s a case of write-what-you-know, and a case of blinkers on the donkey, a story they’re telling – a criticism of those blinkers – but not looking beyond them. Williamson is self-loathing in his own rage, overwhelmed by the flashy glitz of pop-culture; that is his verse, that is his voice, and its key market – A-HA! – are those who relate, not who are self-aware. For his part he seems a sharp, critical, charismatic and eloquent bloke, and there are gems of lyric here, chunks that almost tickle humour, and realist observations in mouthfuls. But it’s a step down from their previous offerings, and mostly due to the upheld pace – a lack of variety – again, a drone. Without a call to arms, what is a reminder of your bleak no-future but just another thing to block out of your life? At the end of the day, that’s what we’re escaping.
Key Markets is like having your face stomped into the cement on a Birmingham footpath just as the first fat globs of rain splat over the concrete. The rough grain, phlegm gobbed up on the pavement, chewing gum, smog, the bottom of that boot on your neck caked in piss from the floors of men’s toilet floors, and as the rain starts to come down that ever-present haze of long forgotten drunken slashes that mirages up around your face. It’s vivid. Steaming. But ultimately it’s resigned, wondering why it came here, and there’s no point in resisting or your teeth get knocked out. For the Sleaford Mods, a drop in tone, in pace, translates to learned helplessness. Williamson knows it too, it’s the winch of frustration in his voice: “Alienation? No one’s bothered.”
Following a stellar appearance at Glastonbury you have to wonder: is it hard to curse out the masses and have them cheer back at you? To see your spite swallowed up, fed off of, by an ever-hungry, ever vapid mass of consumers, of unpaid, thin-spined critics, of music industry hacks?
Because Key Markets, at least, would suggest it’s getting old.
Key Markets is available directly from Cargo Records along with the Sleaford Mods’ other two ‘proper’ albums, Divide And Exit and Austerity Dogs, as well as the usual online outlets.