Why do I like The Fall? They are terrible. A continuous stream of invective against mankind in the form of music extending back 30 years, they refuse to quit. By “they” I mean Mark E. Smith, the would-be vocalist and leader of the band and the only consistent member. Doesn’t The Fall signify — in our fallen world — the apocalypse?
Forty-odd people have been in The Fall over the years. The entire band has been replaced at a single swoop on several occasions. Yet the sound is the most frighteningly unchanging of any long-lived band I know. It is an amalgam of post-punk monotony, the most primitive ’50s garage- and surf-rock, and a few avant-garde effects from Can and Captain Beefheart. Accentuate the monotony and repetitiveness (there’s a very self-aware early song called “Repetition”) and you may start to get a sense of the music. But by far the defining element of The Fall is Smith’s voice: a deeply offensive Manchester whine/ snarl that has only grown more grotesque and less comprehensible over time.
So why do I like The Fall? Why, in fact, are The Fall one of the classic institutions of the last 30 years of rock music? You may as well ask why we enjoy tragedy or violent movies or (some of us) S&M. The answer to this question would reveal something profound about human nature. All I can say is, The Fall is exhilarating. It’s art. Smith is a dark poet. He has affinities with Celine and Burroughs. Supposedly the band was named for a novel by Camus. Sometimes I hear a particularly English strain of sadism that reminds me of Pinter or Larkin. Not that Smith is on the level of these people. But he comes up with some brilliant turns of phrase of his own.
The past few years have been a bit tumultuous for Smith. A year or two ago there was some incident involving banana-throwing and subsequent fisticuffs. He fired the entire band while onstage. So he hired a completely new band to finish the tour. Then he recorded last year’s solid “Reformation Post TLC,” with that band. Now he’s hired yet another group of musicians for the latest album.
Smith is an autocrat and a tireless music-producing machine. He knows exactly what he wants, and he has it done for him. That’s why The Fall always sounds the same. “Imperial Wax Solvent,” the new album, is no different. What can one say? It’s The Fall! A new Fall album is always a cause for celebration, merely as a function of its newness, signifying the fact that The Fall still exists. Between my two external hard drives, I have 1.7 days worth of music by The Fall. I don’t need any more music by them — or by anybody, really. But I’m excited nonetheless.
“Imperial Wax Solvent”: like much of the verbiage associated with The Fall, at first impenetrable and then remarkably resonant. Think about it: they are the solvent, the acid that breaks down the tripe of the empire. I take Smith seriously. He feels that he is, and he is, a social commentator. As an artist, he is a realist. A fantasist, a fabulist, an avant-gardist, but primarily a realist.
The songs on the album are mostly good. “Alton Towers,” the opening track, is spacy, jazzy psychedelia. Smith’s voice is just so weird, so perverse. The rest of the songs are typical Fall: simple, repetitive Stooges-type riffs, pounding drums. “50 Year Old Man,” a nearly 12-minute epic, is a highlight. Smith snarls, “I’m a 50-year-old man / And I like it / I’m a 50-year-old man / Whaddya gonna do about it / I’ve got a three-foot rocket hard-on / But I’m too busy to use it.” On “I’ve Been Duped” it’s funny to hear Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou speak-singing what should be a paranoid rant in her unavoidably sweet, foreign voice.
If this doesn’t answer the question of why I like The Fall, you’ll just have to listen to the album. Actually, listen to 1985’s “This Nation’s Saving Grace” and about a dozen others first.