Maybe the duo needs a year off.
“Told you,” could have been the opening words to English Tapas. Few artists in recent memory predicted our current western decline like Sleaford Mods. From 2007 onward, the caustic rants of Jason Williamson viciously captured the working class blues of the U.K. And before even the Tea Party swept into power on a wave of hate in the United States, Sleaford Mods had their fingers on the pulse of a rising tide of violence. They were trying to warn us, and look where we are now.
So in a post-Trump and Brexit world, surely the Mods’ razor sharp eyes would be even more well-tuned right? Well, it’s not that simple. It seems like even this furious duo are burning out from the current climate and don’t have the energy they kept up for so many albums.
English Tapas is an apt title for this collection of shouts. The stories here are distinctly British but also come in bite-sized packages, allowing Williamson to point out a dozen different conditions slowly bringing western civilization to its knees. Much like that recent Pissed Jeans record, Williamson seems very concerned with toxic masculinity. Williamson realizes that all the war heroes, cowboys and knights are long dead, but we’re still trying to fit into the shoes of those violent icons. On steely opener “Army Nights,” Williamson mentions pumping iron only to show off to his mates, not really caring about any health benefits. Following track builds on his observations, watching how societal norms will wear down even the iconoclasts eventually turning them into a “twat.” “Given half the chance you’d walk around like a twat/ Just like we do,” he snarls. He punches even more viciously in the verse, mentioning how blue collar jobs might soon be something of fiction and the past with increase automatization. “I don’t give a fuck what you did back in the day/ What you’re doing now is useless.”
When Williamson is being as observant as he is angry and his partner in crime Andrew Fearn is building gritty beats, Sleaford Mods are almost untouchable. But perhaps the jadedness of this past year has finally set in terminally. Fearn, in particular, has made his weakest set of instrumentals yet. Fearn, at his best, is an expert in dirty minimalism, his beats bringing up images of dying factories and smog. But he’s nearly gone too far in that direction, with many of the backing tracks barely there. The two note bass line of “Moptop” wouldn’t have made it onto any of their previous albums, and “Messy Anywhere” is even starker but in a boring, lifeless way.
Of the 12 songs here, only around five show the Fearn we watched on Divide and Exit or Key Markets. And when Fearn’s output doesn’t deliver, Williamson has an uphill battle. He tries more singing on English Tapas, with mixed results. “I Feel So Wrong,” the closer, is one of Sleaford Mods’ boldest experiments, injecting menacing piano over Williamson’s surprisingly affecting tenor. But he sounds stilted and awkward on “Drayton Manored” and “Time Sands.” “Time Sands” is the most frustrating on the album, so close to working, especially with Williamson delivering one of his bleakest sermons on the inevitability of death and shouting about “another hell.” But his voice turns even more grating than usual, and Fearn drops another too-minimalist for its own good beat. And “Time Sands” is the poster boy for all of English Tapas: tons of promise in lyrics, delivery and beat making but lacking the energy and punch that it deserves. Maybe the duo needs a year off. Being perpetually infuriated for a decade would take the vigor out of anyone.