Published on March 12th, 2019 | by Sean Kennedy0
Sleaford Mods – Eton Alive
Jason Williamson’s response to a DWP case officer on 2013 single ‘Jobseeker’ – “I’ve got drugs to take, and a mind to break” – articulated a central anxiety in the work of Sleaford Mods: that a state of unreality, induced by whatever means possible, might be preferable to really experiencing life in Britain’s working class – and that the people who are supposed to help either don’t understand or, more likely, don’t care. Williamson’s lyrics have brought us to pubs, to drug-deals, to myopia and self-loathing, and Andrew Fearn’s music to what sound like some of the dingiest, strangest nightclubs in England. Their powerful, grimy catalog charts countless attempts at escapism, and finds little pleasure in anything but dark humour.
In 2019, the escape promised by that fog of unreality seems to hold little appeal for Williamson; now three years sober, he told PopMatters recently that “every jaunt to the pub is pretty much the same and every time you take drugs is pretty much the same … other things come into play”, adding that “Eton Alive talks about more introspective things”. Unreality is the enemy here, as Williamson targets the dehumanising, alienating effects of technology and a consumer culture alternately exploiting and excluding the working class – lent depth by Fearn’s increasingly robust musical canvas.
‘Into the Payzone’, the record’s opening track, introduces these themes effectively; its mechanical whirs and repetitive beeps soundtrack a lyrical tussle with instant gratification, Williamson’s “touch card” standing for both an unprecedented ease in purchasing and the gluttony that accompanies it. The ambivalence extends elsewhere, as on ‘Subtraction’ (“I’m a consumer / I’m the systems rocket and I like my launcher!”), but the wool is never pulled over Williamson’s eyes fully. On ‘Policy Cream’ he takes aim at austerity, warning that it will “turn on us all eventually” as Fearn’s bass guitar-driven track ascends and descends throughout, conveying the sense that such programmes are just a sinister pantomime to their architects.
A new emotional directness is present on fifth track ‘When You Come Up to Me’, alongside a melodic tunefulness rare in their work. Here, Williamson’s voice is vulnerable – shaky, but strangely emotive – as he recounts the distance between onlookers as someone suffers a fit, their isolation seemingly a symptom of those broader concerns about technology and consumerism. The feeling that some sense of humanity is being eroded, the ability to share experiences or to experience things authentically, is pervasive – complemented perfectly by Fearn’s often menacing noise, borrowing from a library of hip-hop and post-punk influences.
In the interest of not misrepresenting the record, it should be pointed out that amidst the defeatism is the hilarity typical of Williamson’s words. On single ‘Kebab Spider’, he mocks government experts, rock stars, movie stars, and documentary-makers trying to understand or represent working-class life – choice lyric: “You’ve had a record deal for nearly thirty years / What do you know about agencies?”. On ‘Flipside’, meanwhile, “Graham Coxon looks like a left-wing Boris Johnson”.
Without that attitude, the record would be a far more dour listen than it is, and one imagines that life would be far less tolerable for Williamson. Listening to the band rage against negative messaging, technocracy, and consumerism continues to energise and impress – for them to retain humour and idiosyncrasy while welcoming personal change and responding to the endless stream of bullshit discharged from the leaders of an automating, self-destructing society is downright inspiring. Seán Kennedy
Summary: Check out: 'Kebab Spider', 'When You Come Up to Me'
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