Album Reviews

Fat White Family – Serfs Up!


The spirit of Jean Genet has been invoked far too often by would-be provocateurs for his warped aphorisms, especially tiresome when sputtered by indie-rock’s supposed enfants terribles; so many wannabe-libertines have cited The Thief’s Journal in justifying their decadent posturing, I wonder whether Genet’s had a moment’s rest amid his turning in the dirt. When Fat White Family frontman Lias Saoudi told The Quietus recently that Genet was the “lyrical bedrock of the album”, I feared that the band’s raucous black comedy might have begun to curdle into banal pretence. No such worries. While the group has straightened up in some ways – working through addiction and personnel issues, and reconvening in Sheffield rather than in London in order to facilitate this – it’s clear from their third LP’s first moments that they have re-emerged with humour and self-awareness intact, making their most consistent album in the process.

The collection has been pitched by the band as their attempt at a pop record – albeit one forced to accommodate their typically dissolute lyrics and queasy sonic experiments – and parts of it are certainly more accessible than one might expect of a Fat Whites LP. The insistent rhythm and disco strings of album opener and lead single ‘Feet’ recall – as much as they’d likely loathe to admit it – Arcade Fire’s recent adventures in dance music on Reflektor and Everything Now, even as Saoudi sings sordidly of sex, celebrity, and the refugee crisis. Elsewhere, the string arrangement on ‘Oh Sebastian’ and psychedelic sing-along on ‘Tastes Good With the Money’ bring to mind the Beatles, if they’d spent a few months mixing their LSD with ketamine by a canal in Sheffield. Throughout, harmonic ideas lend sweetness to songs concerned, as ever, with depravity and perversion – appropriately, the LP’s title references probably the darkest album the Beach Boys ever made.

However, there’s no idiosyncrasy lost in the band’s efforts to articulate ideas more lucidly, or with a catchier hook; you might find yourself humming a chorus, but it may very well be from a jaunty tune about Kim Jong-un’s Freudian fixation on missiles, backed by peculiar keyboards and listless brass. The anthemic optimism of second track ‘I Believe in Something Better’, meanwhile, is tempered by the suggestion that a brighter future might only be achieved if we “build a set of wooden land mines / and lay ’em under all the right guys” – a sentiment expressed over heavy, menacing synthesisers.

The album’s only major weakness is the band’s occasional uncertainty regarding where to leave these songs. Too often, it seems the only conclusion at which they can arrive is to descend into atonal squalls, abandoning the pop conventions they’ve toyed with in favour of discordance; while post-punk harshness has served them well in the past, here it frequently feels as though they’re undercutting themselves just as a track reaches its climax.

The spectre of archaic rock and roll hedonism has followed Fat White Family since their earliest, wholly unrestrained, performances in south London; that they had almost completely imploded before regrouping to make this record was laughably predictable. Hopefully they’ve finally gathered themselves enough to dispel some of the clichés that haunt them. This record should contribute to the effort – a confident, smart, and cohesive rejoinder to nostalgists and sceptics alike. Seán Kennedy