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 the unmediated experience of working-class life – 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 catalogue charts countless attempts at escapism, and finds little pleasure in anything beyond its black comedy.
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 repelling the working class – a project 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, as Williamson’s “touch card” stands for both an unprecedented ease in consumption 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, with regard to Britain’s neoliberal status quo. On ‘Policy Cream’ he takes aim at austerity, warning that it will “turn on us all eventually” as Fearn’s bass guitar-driven track playfully ascends and descends throughout, conveying the sense that such programmes are little more than 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 rarely found in their work. Here, Williamson’s voice is vulnerable – shaky, but 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 – and is complemented perfectly by Fearn’s often menacing noise, which borrows from a library of hip-hop and post-punk influences.
Amid this apparent defeatism, however, is the defiant venom 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’, “Graham Coxon looks like a left-wing Boris Johnson”.
Without this comic, combative element, the record would be a far dourer listen, and one imagines that life would be far less tolerable for Williamson. Listening to Sleaford Mods rage against negative messaging, technocracy, and consumerism continues to energise and impress; that they manage to retain humour and idiosyncrasy while responding to such inhumanity inspires. Seán Kennedy