Eton Alive is the first Sleaford Mods LP to strip back its façade of snotty punk satire and portray genuine dejection at the state of things.
Mark E. Smith may be gone, but even before he shuffled off this mortal coil he’d been presented with an heir apparent in the form of Sleaford Mods. Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn make brittle, basic music, with backing tracks that make first-wave basement grime sound as intricately produced as Neptunes arrangements. On top of that, Williamson spits heavily accented rants about contemporary working-class frustration and other social critiques. Far from standing on ceremony, however, the duo falls back on bitterly cynical humor, approaching macrocosmic social ills from frontline perspectives of moxie and hustle required to survive outside of capitalism’s protected classes. Like the Fall, Sleaford Mods send up well-meaning but feckless liberals with as much gusto as they do fascistic bosses and capital, and often the subject of any given song is obscured by esoteric slang and hyper-specific perspective
Their sense (and preferred subject matter) of humor is immediately apparent in the title of Eton Alive, a reference to the privileged ivory-tower academics and preordained successes who prey upon the sort of people Williamson and Fearn grew up with. Rather than rant at bankers or posh kids, though, the pair hilariously trace the influence of society’s reigning influencers and “disruptors” via the robotic tech monotony they’ve imposed on us. “Into the Payzone” repeats the phrase “touch card” like a mantra, using Williamson’s dispassionate repetition to mimic a plastic world in which we all spend all day mechanically tapping cards for endless transactions. “Top It Up” bleakly rides a staggered, zonked-out bassline to depict a man seeing a mate die of an overdose and attending his funeral while himself continuing to shoot up to get through the trauma of the event. “Two lines on the table at a fucking funeral for somebody who got sick of two lines on the table” isn’t a ponderously shaken fist at powers that be but a rattled first-person account of life so hellish that one cannot relax for even a second to see the forces responsible for making this hell possible.
Elsewhere, the pair are equally vicious when it comes to self-promoting liberals who exploit the poor solely to promote themselves as concerned for the poor. “Kebab Spider” roasts “bingo punks with Rickenbackers” who long ago exited the poverty line, if they ever existed anywhere near it, as well as social-issue documentaries made by pitying wannabes, noting “They ain’t highlighting no pain/ Some documentaries on Channel 4 are only in it for the fame.” Slacktivism is further knocked on the jittery, squelching post-punk of “Subtraction,” where Williamson says “It’s not enough anymore to want change/ You have to do change,” before more materially adding “But the only change I like is in my pocket,” simultaneously implicating himself and the rest of the masses in this consumerist system while noting that for the majority of people the only immediate sign of change is how much money they had on them to live. “Discourse” sends up the dead-end echo chamber of online debate backed by a rapid loop of MIDI mallet percussion and a palm-muted bassline that sounds like Talking Heads meets grime, all nervy paranoia to embody the sense of being completely trapped in by bad-faith social media pile-ons.
Sometimes the Mods just love taking the piss out of acts they consider to be hackneyed and dull, as when they take a sideswipe at Blur on “Flipside” with “Graham Coxon looks like a left-wing Boris Johnson.” Just as often, though, Williamson parodies himself and Sleaford Mods’ modest critical success into sardonic, if earnestly self-critical, images of him as a swaggering rock star. “O.B.C.T.” finds Williamson still slinging his acidic barbs at various targets before admitting “You know now I just fantasize/ In a house three times the size of my old one/ And I pretend it doesn’t matter.”
For all the jokes on the album, though, Eton Alive is the first Sleaford Mods LP to strip back its façade of snotty punk satire and portray genuine dejection at the state of things. Like “Discourse,” “When You Come Up to Me” deals with the increasing isolation of modern life brought about by myriad factors from online second lives to the emotional drain of poverty and degradation. This is by some measure the most sonically developed Mods album, with Fearn’s rich bass grooves a far cry from the sample-heavy and primitive programming of the group’s early work, but Williamson sounds more broken and defeated by contemporary Britain than he ever has. When he spits “We’re like pumped-up meat, wet and fried and thick” on “Policy Cream,” his social critique and personal despair synchronize for one split second of pure hopelessness. Almost immediately, though, that vulnerability is swallowed back into the duo’s piss ‘n vinegar humor as they veer off to poke at anything that stumbles into their field of vision.