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Holy Hell! Levitate Turns 20

Holy Hell! Levitate Turns 20

This is the Fall’s only studio album not still in print.

By 1997, after two decades under the erratic whims of its founder and sole constant member, Mark E. Smith, the enduring Mancunian misfits of the Fall had sustained one of the few consistent manifestations of the punk ethos. Smith and his bandmates refused to conform to expectations of any record label, any trend or any fan, let alone any critic. Setting down a studio album virtually every year, the Fall had just escaped from its doldrums with The Light User Syndrome (1996). Smith’s ex-wife, guitarist Brix Smith, had rejoined after severing professional and personal connections with Mark back in 1989. During her absence, the Fall’s energy for the first half of the 1990s declined. They lacked Brix’s peppy punch that had enabled the band to reach wider audiences during her stint writing and performing throughout most of the previous decade.

Keeping up with this unsteady lineup—which Smith has compared to running a football club and tinkering with his roster like a brutal manager—will challenge anybody trying to make sense of its history. Suffice to say that Brix left after Light User and that two other veterans came back (temporarily) to Smith’s squad. Smith continued his penchant for “intelligent dance music,” which integrated electronic keyboards and computers into the Fall’s guitar-bass-drums-vocals foundation.

With Brix out and other reliables back on the team, the Fall balanced between experimental leanings and a renewed focus on strong songcraft. But the recording process for their 19th album floundered early on. Two producers did not get paid and walked off the project. Fragments from their sessions survived as three tracks, one tellingly titled “Spencer Must Die.” The Fall’s nimble drummer Simon Wolstoncroft, dissatisfied with what he perceived as a lack of due credit for songwriting shares, also absconded halfway into the recording; his absence was filled by Karl Burns. Guitarist Craig Scanlon, a solid performer and a stalwart team player for almost as long, also had been fired.

Without the reliable musicians, who had grounded whatever Smith introduced as his latest quirk, the Fall flailed. Smith’s diet of drugs and drink began to wear away his boyish looks. Finances dwindled. Tommy Crooks arrived, although he lacked the skill of Scanlon. Julia Nagle continued as a keyboardist, augmenting bassist Steve Hanley, who had signed on alongside Scanlon way back in 1979.

As for the album itself, Smith and producer-contributor Mike Bennett fought for control of its sonics. Bennett kindled the wrath of Smith, and it’s a shame that the promise shown by their cooperation on the successful sound of Light could not have been continued longer for the Fall. Still, strong starts with “Ten Houses of Eve,” “Masquerade” and “Hurricane Edward” demonstrate Nagle’s deft hand at playing off Smith’s yowls and snarls, which emit his muttered lyrics and erratic vocal excursions.

Fragments from the first sessions comprise the center of the record. Typically, The Fall tends to slow down midway into a set of full-length tracks. These wander more, but the bookends testify to Smith’s unpredictable covers. This time around, a cover of “I’m a Mummy” is not the anonymous novelty song hinted at in the credits—it’s actually based on a 1959 song written by Rod “Dor” McKuen. The latter part of Levitate lurches on, with one highlight as a third cover. “I Come and Stand at Your Door” may suggest haunting, but whereas “Mummy” romps and stomps, the second song adapts a poem by Turkish Futurist and communist prisoner, Nazim Hikmet. “Door” expresses a lament for peace from a seven-year-old girl immolated at Hiroshima. Co-credited to Nagle, the Fall conveys this plea in a serious tone, defying any casual listener who might write off the album as simply odd.

Yes, it is that, too. This is the band’s only studio album not still in print—its label went bankrupt soon after. The record fits more smoothly into the late 1990s in retrospect, as the Madchester fad began to fade and EDM evolved. It appends a bonus CD to initial pressings, and its five tracks remix live cuts with odds and ends, along with a Smith spoken-word entry. None of these are essential listening even for the most loyal.

The 20th anniversary of Levitate had been rumored to result in its reissue. With 2017 nearly over, that may have been too hopeful a wish. This album may lack the spark of Light, and it presages another fallow period for the band which lasted well past the millennium. But, leaving its third decade behind, the Fall recovered its umpteenth wind. For a while at least, with another keyboardist, and another partner for Smith, it resounded with rewarding recordings. All the same, this year’s studio Fall album documents the demise of that musical and marital partnership. But Smith and comrades upend any expectations. Listen to their latest to date, New Facts Emerge, and marvel at their stamina and wit.

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