Back once again with the old man ranting. Nearly ten years after they emerged from provincial obscurity into unlikely midlife success, Sleaford Mods have barely changed their MO. And if chart placings and column inches are to go by, they are loved more than ever for it. But therein lies the issue. When you’re embraced so uncritically by the Twitterati for what you do, why rock the boat?
Well, maybe they should. For the first time, the hint of one-trick-ponyism that has hung around Sleaford Mods before becomes too hard to dispel. These are the days when you get places by saying The Right Thing, and the Mods have become loved for saying lots of The Right Things. Only now it happens in increasingly unenlightening ways. The opening title track, with its tickbox targets and Cold War Steve-created video could have been made any time in the last seven years, if you swapped the Truss reference for whoever the current PM is/was/will be. “A sign of the times like a cliché,” Williamson rants. Indeed. And it continues. The backing to Right Wing Beast shuffles jauntily, an abortive 80s kids’ TV theme, but the ranting feels unfocussed, generic. Maybe not in quite these words, but this isn’t the first or last time Williamson has warned us about being “mugged by the aristocracy”. Tory Kong the same. If there’s anything as tired and tiresome as the Tory government, it’s rants about the Tory government. Everything’s been said. Just because the Tories haven’t changed their tune, doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.
This isn’t the only source of déjà vu. The angry, brutal march of Tilldipper harks back to tracks that first made them, like Jobseeker, showing not only that the rage is still there, but that it can be tightly harnessed too. Great on one level, but can it be directed somewhere new? DIWhy picks up where the last album’s Elocution left off – taking a pop at fake indie poseurs – but in a less interesting way. “You’re in a shouty band, you’re not original, man,” might be self-knowing, but it’s too close to the truth. “We’re all the fucking same / Let’s not kid ourselves, man”
That last album, Spare Ribs, was a high watermark – our top album of 2021, no less. It was era-defining, encapsulating the fear and dislocation of Covid Britain like no other album managed. But what made it was not the anger per se. That was a given. It was the vignette-like quality of many of the songs – evocative lyrics about “chip-shop birthdays” and making Action Man and Cindy kiss each other. It painted pictures, and the characters in them seemed to envelop the album – the woman opening Top Room by talking about “mekking Marks and Spencer’s knickers”, the barroom jabbering that kicked off Fishcakes. It seemed to point to a deeper, more reflective future direction.
UK Grim is at its best when it follows this template. To a laid-back, almost R’n’B groove, Smash Each Other Up tells a tale of over-heated, powder-keg Britain: “Everybody’s getting well narky / Fist fights near Sainsbury’s car park”, and is full of scene-setting observations – a “bus indicates but you go round it anyway”, “the air smеlls when the sun burns it up”. This says so much more than another round of Tory-baiting. I, Claudius expands on the cul-de-sac childhood reminscences that proved so effective last time out, giving a pithy, ambivalent assessment of parents as “hopeless cogs in the town that snogs itself”. And to close, Rhythms of Class, a piece of Malcolm McLaren-esque hip hop – “Come on, y’all, it’s time to get down to the one, two, three and four” – which continues with one of the album’s smartest observations “Everybody knows when the door still says it’s closed / That it opens out for lots of fuckin’ others”.
So they’ve still got it. It’s just that the stuff informed by where they’re from beats the stuff informed by where they’re at.