Constant line-up changes are part and parcel of The Fall, to the point where Guardian journalist Dave Simpson almost drove himself mad trying to track down every ex-member for his book The Fallen. And yet, in the last decade they’ve been strangely stable, releasing an unprecedented four albums with an entirely unchanged line-up, and a fifth that merely added a second percussionist.
Now, though, not only are they back to a single drummer, but they’ve also lost Elena Poulou, who’d been manning the keyboards since as far back as 2002, making her one of the band’s longest serving members ever, behind only the legendary Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon (excepting Mark E. Smith himself, of course). Weathered fans often echo Smith’s past insistence that changes are vital to keep things fresh, but worryingly, the best material on the last LP, 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet, were the synth-heavy tracks like ‘Dedication Not Medication’ and ‘Junger Cloth’, rather than the more uninspired garage rock moments. So how does album number 32 – the first with a four piece Fall since Shift-Work all the way back in 1991 – stack up?
The heavy, circling riff of first track proper ‘Fol De Rol’ makes it clear Smith has given in to his rhythm section’s love of bands like Motorhead, as well as his own fascination with The Stooges. Last time they tried a heavier approach on 2011’s Ersatz GB it was by and large a mess, let down by poor mixing, an unnecessary metal pastiche and Smith’s deeply unpleasant growling and gurgling. Here though they pull it off a great deal better – the band sound crisp, clear and energised, and while Smith is back at the growling, he isn’t so high in the mix that he sounds like he’s about to be sick into your ear. It’s a pretty strong start which they maintain throughout ‘Brillo De Facto’ and the title track, each equipped with hard hitting drums and a biting Pete Greenway guitar riff, though such are their similarities that it’s already difficult to tell when one track ends and another begins.
When they do eventually switch things up on ‘Couples vs Jobless Mid 30s’, they go for an odd sort of prog-metal approach that fails to spend long enough on a single idea to see it through. It finally reaches a great final two minutes but only after spending six frustrating minutes trying to find its way there. Compared to the similarly long, odd and multi-sectioned ‘50 Year Old Man’ from 2008’s great Imperial Wax Solvent – this line-up’s first outing – it comes off as a bit of a failed experiment, and only serves as a reminder that the reason longer Fall tracks are usually highlights is that they’re usually dedicated to focused, krautrock-inflected repetition.
‘Second House Now’ tricks us into believing it’s going to be yet another of the group’s skippable excursions into increasingly generic rockabilly territory, before suddenly bursting into life with the best riff on the album. From there on though the record drifts through some lighter throwaway moments towards optimistically titled closer ‘Nine out of Ten’, a sloppy guitar and vocal track that could perhaps be forgiven if not for an utterly interminable five minute outro of the song’s surprisingly poor guitar track on its own, an odd choice that ends the album on a fairly pathetic whimper rather than a bang.
New Facts Emerge remains a reasonably safe distance from The Fall’s very worst albums, but it does feel like one of the more unremarkable, one that it’s hard to imagine returning to very often by the time these songs have fallen out of the live set. Smith’s vocals aren’t as downright awful like we know they’re capable of, but they’re the most forgettable part of this record – an odd state of affairs for any Fall release. His trademark rhythmic spoken word feels largely edged out at last by indecipherable shouting, and it’s hard to pick out any lyric here, let alone a notable one. Some say the rot has been setting in for some time, but the band’s last two albums each had their fair share of genuinely great moments with far more replay quality than even the best tracks here, and it’s still not really all that long since 2010’s brilliant Your Future Our Clutter.
It’s never wise to completely write off a band that have been repeatedly returning-to-form for decades, and the recent addition of a new keyboard player might freshen things up for next time, but Smith will need to be sharper and more focused. It’s no secret that Smith would rather make an outright terrible record than an average one, but on that front he’s out of luck here. Cathal McBride