A reminder that even at the peak of the Fall’s pop crossover they remained scabrous and uncompromising at heart.
The follow-up to the Fall’s breakout LP, This Nation’s Saving Grace, Bend Sinister proved that Mark E. Smith had unexpectedly arrived as a legitimate pop star. The record entered the top 40 in the UK and landed both an album and standalone single in the top 75, not exactly superstar stats but nonetheless a significant breakthrough for a group that had lived comfortably in the post-punk underground since their inception. If TNSG was the fullest expression of Brix Smith’s pop sensibilities, all melodic transfigurations of the band’s core garage/Krautrock sound, Bend Sinister found an uneasy balance between contemporary and classic Fall. Still, here are pop grooves and indelible hooks (surf guitar in particular is an unlikely touchstone on many tracks), but MES reasserts his full caustic wit and deconstructive approach to arrangement, resulting in an album every bit as striking as its predecessor.
Smith’s gift for dense, bleak, humorous lyrics is present from opener “R.O.D.,” referring to some hellish alternate dimension known as the Realm of Dusk whence some horrid eldritch creature, “600 pounds gas and flesh,” emerges. Smith’s literary touchstones, present even in the Nabokov reference of the album title, crop up in this apocalyptic vision worthy of Blake, though with the line “Hide, dive, hide, reasonable people in silence do exult,” he actually reworks Yeats. “Dktr. Faustus” equally pays tribute to Goethe and Krautrock legends Faust—the former in lyrical references to the literal and intellectual filth and squalor that surrounded Faustus, the latter in the mechanical rhythms and Brix’s hilarious interjections of non sequiturs like “Banana!.” Then there are the real deep dives into Smith’s mind palace, the songs so cryptic and esoteric that even devotees cannot figure out what the point is. “Gross Chapel-British Grenadiers” is one of Smith’s classic story-songs, riding Steve Hanley’s grinding bassline and Simon Wolstencroft’s antic percussion in a sliding groove as Smith traverses a dizzying, baffling array of word-pictures that incorporate raunchy traveling salesman tales, an 18th-century military march, possibly even an account of the band’s own dustups at gigs.
Politics does inform some of the record, though in true Smith fashion his preferred format of commentary is a petulant airing of grievances. “US 80’s-90’s,” hilariously sequenced right after the Revolutionary War march quote of “British Grenadiers,” uses an instance of Smith getting busted by Customs in Boston over bringing amphetamines into the country to launch an aggrieved slam of the entire nation. Ranting “No beer/ No cigarettes,” Smith goes on a tirade of America being sanitized by its conservative values, an interesting rejoinder to the popular conception of the ‘80s as America’s most opulent and debauched decade. Elsewhere, Smith’s social commentary is mostly just dismissive of the punters who disrupt his solipsism, as when he snipes at dull poseurs who “couldn’t tell Lou Reed from Doug Yule” in “Shoulder Pads 1#.” Even “Terry Waite Sez,” a reference to the then-envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a leading hostage negotiator, is ultimately a jubilant work of nonsense, repeating the title over and over with some vague padding lyrics over a rubbery riff.
Pound for pound, Bend Sinister is one of the Fall’s most fun records, and funniest. “Bournemouth Runner” is structured as a grim, portentous dirge that suddenly revs up into demented rockabilly when the song clarifies itself as a tribute to a fan who ran onstage, stole the group’s backdrop, and (unsuccessfully) fled security. “Mr. Pharmacist,” a cover of mid-‘60s garage act the Other Half, is barnstorming mid-tempo punk, its serrated guitars chugging in a twanging but nonetheless dissonant groove. By the time we return to “Shoulder Pads” for a revved up, rewritten version, the band closes out on a note of puckish glee that epitomizes the sardonic energy of the entire album, a reminder of the Fall’s indelible, singular sound and mordant humor.
Like many of the band’s records, Bend Sinister seemed to get a slightly different tracklist on each pressing, and while Beggars Arkive’s reissue restores the album to its original sequencing, it includes a second disc with many of the bonus songs written around the same time and frequently included as part of the album proper on international releases and represses. This is a real treat, given how many classic non-album singles were released around this time; the rollicking “Hot Aftershave Bop” is here, as is the shimmering but dark “Hey! Luciani,” drawn from Smith’s fascination with conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I (also included is the song’s original version, used in a play that Smith wrote and briefly ran about the same topic). Oddly, “There’s a Ghost in My House,” a definitive Fall single, is missing, though the addition of a Peel session of Bend Sinister material is a welcome showcase for the raw intensity that the band brought to the glossier finish of the Beggars Banquet years. Some outtake alternate mixes are superfluous in the way that nearly all non-jazz alternate takes are, but a closing live performance of “How I Wrote Elastic Man” b-side “City Hobgoblins” (here “Town and Country Hobgoblins”) is savage and brutal, a reminder that even at the peak of the Fall’s pop crossover they remained scabrous and uncompromising at heart.