“H-a-a-ay!” Jason Williamson greets us to the new album in the style of Fonzie, but we all know the score by now. The cheeriness is short-lived, even sarcastic. Thirty seconds further into opener The New Brick and the real tone of Spare Ribs is established. It’s not what Fonzie would call cool: “We’re all so Tory tired and beaten by minds small…”
The rise of Sleaford Mods has been one tiny, happy side effect of a decade of societal misery. They’re a reminder that coming from the regions and making your own music to your own rules in your own time is still viable, if unlikely. That rarity value comes with a cost though. The Mods now find themselves worshipped as alternative national treasures, co-opted as a totem of “realness” by the kind of media types who’d normally look upon hicks like them with disdain. They only get a pass because they’re guaranteed to say nasty things about the Tories, thus making them the acceptable face of provincial oikery. But they’re at the stage now where they’re almost memeable. You know how they’ll be prodded in interviews, you know the role they’ll be expected to play, you know how they’ll be photographed for the accompanying picture – a pigeonholing that can often be creative death. Fortunately, such peripheral media frippery is irrelevant if they keep delivering where it counts – on record. And they do. Williamson and partner Andrew Fearn continue to go about their business with the determination of men who missed their first chance in life and won’t have this second one taken from them.
Spare Ribs is sparse, even by previous standards. Fearn has pared down anything that might brighten the musical palette, dropped the beats lower in the mix and maxed out repetition. The economy is effective. Shortcummings is little more than a bassline and a short guitar riff to decorate the chorus, but stirs itself up into a vat of slowly boiling piss, complete with a “you’ll get yours” chorus about the titular bête noire of government advisers: “He’s gonna mess himself so much / But it’s all gonna come down hard”. Out There pairs an anti-Brexit, anti-covid-conspiracy rant with a rumble like an ancient boiler fifty foot down a lift shaft. Top Room‘s synth line is choked and thin, the better to highlight Williamson’s lyrics about lockdown life. It sounds like living in compressed circumstances. “I think I want something to come out of my phone that ain’t there,” he mourns.
Diss track Nudge It is a less minimal moment, propelled by bouncing synth and gear-crunching riff. The ugly snarl of Amyl and the Sniffers’ Amy Taylor (not the only album out this month she’s guesting on) is a welcome addition as they shoot down a “fucking class tourist” for being “stood outside a highrise trying to act like a gangsta”. It’s not that hard to surmise the subject’s identity from prior knowledge of the band’s beefs.
Elocution takes another pop, starting off with a mocking impersonation of an artist defending independent venues and continuing with Williamson wishing “I had the time to be a wanker just like you”. It makes explicit a seldom-voiced truth: spouting socially-approved platitudes is not always a sign of inner goodness. It’s often just an ingratiation tactic. This contempt for anyone taking right-on stances for brownie points is repeated elsewhere: “Ticking boxes with the subjects for political score” (Nudge It), “Jargon fight, clever insight / Tick boxes tick” (Spare Ribs).
On the other side of the coin, Williamson extends a fatalistic compassion to those who society’s given a raw deal, be it the homeless – “Outside, spare ribs do bits of spice … Give him what he wants, he’s fucked” (Spare Ribs) – or the hopeless – “If you get past it, the job’s not so bad / It just takes it out of you, so slowly out of you” (All Day Ticket). Both sum up the prevailing mood on the album. Either through age or defeatedness, Williamson is less angry, more resigned than before.
But there’s another mood too, one precipitated by lockdown and new to the band – introspective nostalgia.
They’ve always dropped retro pop cultural references (TCR, Tiswas), but on this album it’s turned into something emotionally deeper and reflective. Williamson’s opening up. There’s a portrait of the artist as a young man on Mork n Mindy, his ode to growing up on “a really depressing cul de sac” making Action Man and Cindy “kiss each other when mum and dad go out” (although the show stealer is Billy Nomates’ soulful refrain which adds just the right splash of colour to the grey).
Grim yesteryear townscapes abound. Things sound a bit Everyday Is Like Sunday on All Day Ticket: “The seafront changes slowly if you blink throughout the day…” or more prosaically, Thick Ear talks of “the landscape, eventually being abandoned or sold to function as a different enterprise”.
Closer Fishcakes is especially powerful. To the bleakest, broken-sounding backing track this side of Joy Division, Williamson paints a 70s childhood, remembering “Where the gym was and the garage / And rows of stale marriage” and gifts that were “second hand but I don’t mind”, before hitting us with a payoff laden with a painful realisation – that even the bad old days offered things we don’t have now: “And when it mattered (and it always did) / At least we lived…”
On the surface, Spare Ribs is the same ugly blokenoise as every Sleafords album, and thus unlikely to win converts. Underneath though, there’s new nuance, and the right level of spirit-of-the-times angst, enough to resonate but not depress. Polite society may love them for their rough-as-arses sweary Tory-baiting, but that’s not what wins the day here. Instead it’s the introspection and flashes of past memory that counter-intuitively say something about the way we are currently living. As 2020 rolls grimly over into 2021, we’re going to be glad of Spare Ribs.