Fat White Family deserves to bring their baffling, enervating, invigorating selves to a wider audience.
Great Britain’s answer to the Black Lips, Fat White Family have always subsisted on their enfant terrible reputations more than their music. It’s not entirely fair, as buried beneath the sludge of the band’s Fall-esque blend of psychobilly, Krautrock and jagged pop is a group with self-evidently sophisticated, if deliberately primitive, talent. Still, the reputation finally caught up with them after 2016’s Songs for Our Mothers, with the band fraying at the seams over internal power struggles and rampant addiction. For a time, guitarist Saul Adamczewski even left the band, though he still stayed on good enough terms with lead singer Lias Saoudi to form the psych-glam outfit The Moonlandingz. After several other side projects churned out compelling material in the intervening three years, Fat White Family have cleaned up (in more ways than one) and returned with their third, possibly best, album Serfs Up!
The band has always courted controversy with their lyrical subject matter, and a quick run through of this album shows that things have changed little on that front. Opening track “Feet” contains an anti-Arab racial slur that is heart-stopping even coming out of Saoudi’s mouth, and one need only glance at the title of “Vagina Dentata” to see that the provocations are still here. Yet the band’s time apart has only sharpened their gifts; in particular, the influence of Adamczewski’s glam project Insecure Men is all over this record. You can hear it sonically in tracks like “Tastes Good with the Money,” which somehow manages to combine T-Rex with Gregorian chanting, all as the band revels in visions of lavish wealth amid the broader economic decline of post-austerity, post-Brexit rule, parlaying their sleazy hedonism into the uninhibited bacchanal of the one percent.
The continued economic duress suffered by all but the most filthy rich in global society informs much of the album’s lyrical bent. Sarcasm drips from “Oh Sebastian” from the outset, the line “Is there anything more inspiring/ Than a menial job and the pittance it brings?” laced with the contemptuous view towards working people who must eat shit and smile. The track’s woozy take on Beatles chamber pop, filtering the band’s sardonic view of the emotional labor tied into paid labor through string arrangements and lilting vocal harmonies, compounds the deep sense of falsely positive irony. Occasionally though, the band actually seems to invest in their otherwise hollow optimism. “I Believe in Something Better” is a roundabout affirmation anthem, albeit one where self-actualization involves cries of “Let’s build a set of wooden land mines/ And lay ‘em under all the right guys.” Still, the staccato drum beat and swelling synths have a sense of urgency that pushes both the band and the listeners to embrace something beyond nihilism.
Musically, this is by far the band’s most accomplished record. “Kim’s Sunsets” rides a funky drummer beat that Clyde Stubblefield could have been proud off, then buries it under blurred lines of wah-wah guitar and even saxophone topped off by percolating lines that give the entire track a perversely tropical vibe. “Fringe Runner” boasts a rollicking, bluntly mixed post-punk bassline and a guitar line so brittle and shrill it sounds more like a kazoo than a stringed instrument. The aforementioned glam stomp of “Tastes Good with the Money” pays off years of side project work from various band members with their hardest bit of scuzz pop yet.
For all the hype and controversy that the band attracts and actively encourages, Fat White Family have been a compelling band from the start, one of a handful of heirs apparent to Mark E. Smith’s universally offensive, esoterically revelatory method. For all the group’s snide provocation, they are equally capable of evocation, embracing unclear meanings or delightful turns of phrase such as “I never wanna go back South/ Where they pump you full of guarantees” on “Rock Fishes.” That the group ends things with the infantile regression of “Bobby’s Boyfriend,” with its endless refrain of “Bobby’s boyfriend is a prostitute,” is perhaps a sign that the band still haven’t shaken their worst impulses. More accurately, it’s a reflection of how their most juvenile instincts coexist with their sophisticated ones, and you cannot excise the former without lobotomizing the latter. Fat White Family have been the UK’s best kept secret for years, but with Serfs Up! they deserve to bring their baffling, enervating, invigorating selves to a wider audience.