I have no idea what the fuck Mark E. Smith is talking about. Of course, this has long been part of The Fall’s appeal: Since 1976, Smith has composed some of the most delightfully labyrinthine lyrics ever written, flecked with reference to H.P. Lovecraft and old Twilight Zones, filled with regional British slang I’m pretty sure you could narrow down to four square blocks in Manchester, and rife with deadpan insults that are hilarious only in context. (“You are working on a video project,” from 1993’s The Infotainment Scan, always kills me, but less so on paper.) Smith’s frequent sacking of The Fall’s lineups—enough lost soldiers to fill a marble wall—means its music is always changing with the times, from the haunted carnival punk of its early years to the wiry pop of the vaunted Brix years to its experiments with “techno shit.” But throughout, those deliriously mysterious words have remained the sole constant, alongside Smith’s powerful, unmistakable speak-sing bray.
But now I literally have no idea what he’s saying, because the man gave up on proper enunciation approximately three records ago. New Facts Emerge, The Fall’s 32nd (!) album, kicks off with one of those musique concrete snatches of which Smith is so fond—a field recording of what sounds like him banging on an empty pint glass while sarcastically, half-assed singing the chorus of actual first track “Fol De Rol.” It’s an appropriate introduction: Smith spends most of New Facts Emerge sounding like he’s gargling beer and broken teeth, his former, sneeringly enunciated voice now reduced to the phlegmy growl of an old man hectoring passersby outside the pub he’s just been kicked out of. When he does break from snarling, it’s usually to shout the song’s title. Otherwise, my notes are full of a lot of questionable transcriptions. I don’t know that Smith actually bellows “Stop shaking down those frogs!” in the title track, or “The grape jelly!” in “Couples Vs. Jobless Mid 30s”—but I don’t not know that either. There is a song literally titled “O! ZZTRRK Man.” My inquiry as to whether there is a lyrics sheet was met with laughter from the publicist and a “Probably doesn’t know himself!” So much for that.
While the vocals are a bit gummy, at least the music has considerable bite. One of the advantages of always picking up a fresh batch of sidemen is that Smith is consistently backed by players whose energy make up for any aimlessness on his part. And the current lineup—guitarist Pete Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, drummer Kieron Melling—have all achieved the minor miracle of appearing on six straight albums together. As such, they’ve tightly coalesced around a sound built on the sort of big, repetitive, muscular guitar riffs and distorted bass burrs Smith has favored since the turn of the millennium. (Smith’s keyboardist/wife Elena Poulou quit the band last year after becoming “frustrated”; her synthesizer beeps are sorely missed.)
Only a few tunes stray from that basic formula: The minor pre-release “controversy” over “Victoria Train Station Massacre” is rendered incredibly silly by the fact that, after 60 seconds or so of Smith sounding like he’s screaming at a hotel clerk, the track abruptly gives up, dissolving into a cacophony of backwards-masked bleats. The aforementioned “Couples Vs. Jobless Mid 30s” sprawls across nearly nine minutes, divided into thematic halves that (presumably) capture monogamy, in all its horrible bliss and/or grape jelly, by rendering it as a stoner metal dirge where Smith’s Gollum croaks are backed by maniacal laughter and even a Snow White And The Seven Dwarves “Hi-ho,” before breaking into a pure Bo Diddley rave-up. Later, the limp “Gibbus Gibson” finds Smith putting his old tentative karaoke croon over an atypically sunny, spidery guitar line, creating a mock-superhero theme about how the title character “strikes again.” And closer “Nine Out Of Ten” starts off promising a memoir as Smith sarcastically invites, “Come and listen to my story,” then peters out as another piss-take where he almost immediately shuts up, the song riding its solo, jangly, reverbed guitar strum for another six minutes, daring you to shut it off.
But in a way, isn’t that kind of what all new Fall albums do? The Fall is my all-time favorite band; I’ve dutifully added every new release to my already-bursting completist’s collection, though I haven’t been truly excited by one since 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter. And as with all the records in between, I listen to New Facts Emerge waiting for some spark of the group and the singular talent I love more than any other to show itself, politely sitting through a bunch of unmemorable, occasionally downright ugly songs that repeatedly test that patience, challenging myself to keep giving a shit enough to hang around. It’s not bad—it’s certainly not an Ersatz GB, or Are You Are Missing Winner (though its half-assed cover art certainly comes close). But now that I’ve written it up, off it will go into the pile, never to be played.
This is far from a tragedy, or even much of a disappointment. Mark E. Smith’s defiant endurance has become something of a wry joke shared between artist and fan, as is his stubborn insistence that the band only gets better and better. We laugh because he’d already delivered a lifetime’s worth of towering records by the 1990s, then somehow kept on finding new facets of his weird genius. (Up to about 2003’s The Real New Fall LP, anyway.) Unlike other, less prolific artists who put their souls into pale rehashes with each new iteration, and so you mourn something of them—and of yourselves—slipping away, Smith doesn’t have to prove anything. Really, I’m just glad he’s still out there, still doing the work. The work sounds terrible, but I’m still comforted that it exists.
And I will be unfathomably sad the day Smith’s work ends, no matter how many of these garbled, loogie-ridden scribbles he delivers between now and then. But when the day comes when Mark E. Smith finally stops, I sure as hell won’t play New Facts Emerge in tribute. Oh well. Maybe the next one will be great?