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Sleaford Mods gets introspective, but don’t think they’ve gone soft

Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. (Kristian Buus/Corbis/Getty Images)

In a time when long-simmering working-class resentment toward economic and cultural elites has boiled over into frothing, bulge-eyed disgust, Jason Williamson has been well ahead of the curve. As the verbal half of the English beat-punk/punk-beat duo Sleaford Mods, Williamson has used the grounding and grinding repetition laid down by his partner, Andrew Fearn, as a launchpad for spittle-drenched rants aimed upward for almost a decade. Before Trump. Before Boris Johnson. Before pop acts guaranteed themselves a headline by bravely positing that Nazis are, in fact, bad. And before leftists could get Substack-rich by pointing out that some liberals were, in fact, rich hypocrites.

The Mods were, album after album, year after year, grumbling into the void about fascists and hypocrites both. That the band’s ire was as fixated on mediocre indie bands and punters who irritated Williamson at the bar as it was on landlords and lawyers should be taken only as further proof, in their elastic sense of grievance, of a cultural prescience that psychics and bookies would kill for.

Now, in 2021, after years of conspiracy co-mingling with actual injustice, after 10 months of the general population either being forced to work or not being allowed to, when pretty much everyone has been given plenty of time to stare at a wall or phone and think about who else’s fault it all might be, the Mods find themselves in the awkward position of having a new album to promote, remotely, with no possibility of being the angriest people in the room. If that designation even still interests them. As Williamson says, after watching so many other bands using class warfare as en vogue costume jewelry, “It was getting a bit cheesy now, you know? And there’s no point in just saying Boris is a wanker.”

To say “Spare Ribs” is the band’s most personal album yet would be cruel. For one, the personal nature of some of the songs should not be taken as a retreat from the body politic into solipsism. There’s still plenty of class rage, with songs like “Shortcummings’’ (at least partially about Dominic Cummings, former adviser to Boris Johnson) hardly being subtle in their contempt for Tory crapulence. Secondly, the pair have always been laser-focused on a minutiae that, even if less about interpersonal heartbreak than about hating one’s job or a particularly disgusting public restroom, was nothing if not extremely personal. Certainly their attacks on other bands, whether Chumbawamba or Idles, were intended to be taken personally.

Thirdly, even if the personal has been brought to the fore on “Spare Ribs,” Williamson has his reasons. A back injury last year, caused by overexercise but rooted in a childhood case of spina bifida, led to a culmination of suppressed (or at least untapped) memories. Besides revisiting the time when, as an adolescent, he had a major operation to remove a tumor on his spine, Williamson reckoned with a funeral for a sister who died almost half a century ago.

“I had a sister that died at birth from spinal bifida. And so, that really screwed my mom up, but it was back in the day, it was just not talked about,” he says. The family recently found out she was likely buried in a mass grave near the hospital where she died and decided to have a small funeral in her honor. “It was quite heavy,” he says. If the event was not exactly cathartic, it was at least cause for introspection.

“It was quite a melting pot of a mixture of self pity, and bit of a depression thing, and self doubt. And . . . sort of analyzing all of my traits,” Williamson says. “Who I am now? Who am I, and thinking, you know, ‘Am I a wanker?’ ”

While the pathos and rigorous self-flagellation leavened by humor and swearing is classic Mods, the last bit of self-interrogation is charmingly absurd. The band is famous, among fans and haters alike, for its occasionally one-sided spats with artists and bands who they find ideologically or aesthetically suspect. Well, Williamson is at least. Fearn doesn’t share the inclination, saying, “I’ve never really been into slagging bands off. It’s just not my thing.” (Though he does cop to having a strong antipathy toward Oasis.)

And while Williamson has perhaps mellowed a tad over the past couple years, that’s only in comparison with before. When it’s pointed out that perhaps his newfound sense of self-aware mellowing is not immediately discernible to the public — that maybe he didn’t change as much as the moment of clarity implies — he laughs. “No, I didn’t. I think I kind of sat back and was like ‘Oh.’ And then I just carried on as normal.”

Inching toward maturity (self-reflection, a tad more actual singing) while keeping what works (bracing minimalism, not letting self-reflection get in the way of a good rant) is as apt a thematic pigeonholing of the new Sleaford Mods album as any. For Fearn’s part, it’s important that the music itself remains true to the initial primal urges of punk (Fearns cites Butthole Surfers as a band he far preferred over any Britpop), hip-hop and dance music. When a specific effort to change the band’s sound is suggested, he pushes back, saying, “It was actually the opposite.” To his mind, the variety of sounds on “Spare Ribs” is rather a continuation of 2013’s “Austerity Dogs’” balance of what he calls a “selection box of different sort of vibes.”

“It’s pretty important to have all those kinds of flavors in there on an album,” Fearn says. “It’s like a mix tape, isn’t it? I sound really old saying ‘mix tape.’ ” (Both of the Mods are circling 50.)

Fearn’s clarification aside, “Spare Ribs” does have some notable leaps forward for the duo. While Williamson has always had a certain tunefulness to his jeremiads, the shift in his listening habits from a steady flow of grime and drill to certain strains of folk has resulted in what he calls a “inward melodic flow” on a number of the more desolate tracks on “Spare Ribs.” Also, two songs (“Nudge It” and the album’s first single “Mork n Mindy”) have a first for the Mods — guest singers. Amy Taylor, the audaciously charismatic singer of the fantastic Australian garage punk band Amyl and the Sniffers, indulges her long-stated affection for hip-hop on the former.

“Mork n Mindy” was the result of Fearn meeting Billy Nomates over Instagram and signifies the Mods’ first foray into pure mood-pop, with Nomates providing her smoky Marianne Faithfull-esque counterpoint to Williamson and Fearn’s pulsating memory-as-ghost-story. The addition of the two singers — partially an aesthetic choice and partially an agreement with the band’s label that a little variety couldn’t hurt — is also consistent with Sleaford Mods’ ideological stance: Rather than male-feminist posturing, they just have women on the record.

Strictly speaking, Sleaford Mods has existed as a project led by Williamson since the aughts (before that, he was in a bluesy hard-rock band somehow called Meat Pie) but it was with “Austerity Dogs” that the band’s template fully took shape. Fearn wrote beats that were deceptively primitivist, as indebted to the skronking throb-throb of ’80s American post-punk bands like Big Black as they were to hip-hop; Williamson’s heavily-accented rage-poetry fit neatly on top.

Over the past decade the band’s fan base has steadily increased, the expected mix of beer drinkers, hell raisers and the friends of the friends of the working class who make up the critical intelligentsia and devote their rock-and-roll critical energies looking for someone to be the next Joe Strummer.

As with pretty much the entire music industry, the Mods’ big plans for 2020 never came to fruition. All touring was scrapped, including an unlikely gig among the sun-kissed beautiful people at Coachella. Williamson, his wife (who also manages the band) and their two young children retreated to their home. Fearn had to put off his search for a new home and hunkered down with his elderly father. “Spare Ribs” was completed, but the band for which live performance is so integral was relegated to audience-free live streams. Their American late-night television debut on Seth Meyers’s show had to be done remotely. While happy with their performance, Williamson can’t help but be disappointed at what was missed, in particular meeting one guest who was on the same night: “I mean, Bernie Sanders is on the same program. This beacon of reason. Imagine that, meeting Bernie Sanders!”

For all the anger that can come through in his lyrics, Williamson has little of it on the politics that consume so much of everyone’s head space. Or at least his current fury is fatalistic enough to allow for a minute to tend to his own patch. “I don’t get angry at the political landscape. I’m just severely saddened and a bit depressed by it,” he says. “And so I don’t think I put anger in any of the songs. . . . It’s more, the anger goes into my critique of the people, my dissatisfaction with myself. You know — paranoia, bitterness.” He follows with a wry “etcetera, etcetera.” Some
grievances are endless.