Taking the tablet
(This is a review of the CD version; there is a vinyl version which features different mixes of some of the tracks, which I haven’t yet heard).
This is, quite simply, a fantastic Fall album, up there with their very best. That’s all you really need to know, and all I really need to say. There is, simply, nothing better than a top album by the best band ever to exist. All hail the glory of The Fall! I’ll say more, though, otherwise this would be a very short review. Sub-Lingual Tablet is the 30-somethingth album by The Fall and the fifth from the current line-up, the longest serving in the band’s history (2007-now): Mark E. Smith (of course), Eleni Poulou (synths), Dave Greenway (guitar), Kieron Melling (bass) and Dave Spurr (drums). This year they are augmented by a second drummer, Daren Garratt. They are on fantastic live form, as their performance at Glastonbury demonstrates.
The title is typically Fall-esque and cleverer than at first meets the eye. A ‘sub-lingual tablet’ is a pill that you pop beneath the tongue, there to dissolve – but the phrase also has connotations with language and technology. Indeed, social media and its associated gadgets are a theme on this album, popping up in the lyrics and forming the subject matter of closing tracks Fibre Book Troll and Quit iPhone. These latter two titles are uncharacteristically unequivocal for Mark E. Smith, and unusually topical… for 2008. Get with it Mark, you wrote I’m Into C.B. at the height of the 1980s UK Citizens Band Radio boom, you’re getting slack in your old age! But then he also wrote Telephone Thing well over century after the invention of the telephone, so I’ll let him off.
The album cover shocked me when I first saw it. There have been some spectacularly bad Fall album covers, most notably Re-Mit, which is just plain ugly. At least that one looked like it took some effort – effort perhaps better spent elsewhere, but the cover of Sub-Lingual Tablet looked, at first, lazy. I didn’t believe that it was the actual cover, just a fan fake, and I hated it, but I have come to like it, even love it. Note the OCD-baiting way there is a gap between the text at the top and the image, but not at the bottom. The image appears to be lighting rig in a nightclub, which suggests a electronic/dance influences – and indeed, this record is far more ‘techno’ than anything since The Unutterable. The image and the stark lettering also have surveillance/ Orwellian overtones. Once loaded onto my ancient Nokia N8 (no iPhones here, Mr Smith!) the cover really stands out when browsing through my music library, and I wonder if it was deliberately designed that way, or is it just serendipity? The back cover, however, is truly, truly horrendous. The image of pills, admittedly, does fit with the album title, but those fonts! Glarg.
So, to the music. I liked the last two Fall albums, Ersatz G.B. (2011) and Re-Mit (2013), and they are still great albums, but they are completely blown out of the water by this. Sub-Lingual Tablet is certainly the best album this line-up have produced, just edging Your Future Our Clutter (2010) which seems a little staid in comparison, and trumping Imperial Wax Solvent (2008) by being a much better sequenced, more complete album experience. Sub-Lingual Tablet was produced by Mark E. Smith himself, which, history teaches us, can go one of two ways. Fortunately, this time, it’s gone the right way, and then some.
The album opens strongly with Venice With The Girls, a song based on this infamous insurance advert. ‘Me? I’m off to Venice with the girls! Well, why should I be a golf widow? Not when StaySure have it covered!’ Mark E. Smith does seem to find his inspiration in the most unlikely places! Rather interestingly, the lyrics are from the husband’s point of view, as he waits mournfully for his wife (and, presumably, daughters) to return. ‘He’s been waiting so long,’ sings Mark. Yes, sings! It’s his best vocal performance in ages. Musically, it’s fairly standard Fall-pop with a catchy riff and pounding drums. The production is interesting – despite its crisp clarity, there’s a lot of murk and grime in there, giving the track a muddy sheen. This recalls the 1979 album Dragnet, which was remastered in 2004, only to reveal that the apparent murkiness and grit wasn’t due to previous poor remasters, but was in the actual music itself. Much of Sub-Lingual Tablet has a similar tone.
Second track, Black Roof, is a weird one. Written and performed by Rob Barbato and Tim Presley, the ‘Dudes’ who worked with Mark E Smith on 2007’s Reformation! Post TLC, it’s a brief, barmy, Beefheartian blast that takes more than a few listens to get a handle on. it’s great to hear that The Fall can still put out such disconcerting music.
Then comes Dedication Not Medication, one of the album’s highlights. It’s like the mutant offspring off L.A. from 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace. A juddering bassline of satisfying sinisterosity underpins alarming synth contributions from Eleni and shuddering guitar shenanigans from Pete Greenway. After a minute or so it breaks into a startling cacophonic crescendo, which subsides back into the main riff, only for M.E.S. to shout ‘PIERCE BROSNAN! How dare you prescribe sad grief and bed-wet pills!’ One of the hilarious high points on what is an extremely entertaining album.
First One Today follows and the TNSG comparisons continue as this sounds like a B-side recorded around 1985, with shades of album track Barmy. Even Mark’s vocal sounds as if it was were recorded thirty years ago. A bouncy bass interlude gives the track a personality of its own. Four tracks in, and four wildly differing styles – and yet it all flows perfectly.
Another change of style next on Junger Cloth. This follows in the vein of Chino and Hittite Man from recent albums, but somehow manages to be more primal. The bassline is brilliant, and hard to describe; it’s vaguely African, and addictive in a specifically Fall way that mere words cannot convey. The lyrics seem to be about Mark deciphering a Satanic inscription on a parchment or cloth: ‘It encapsulates all that is foul in man and creature.’ Careful listening reveals a scratchy guitar riff in the left channel that recalls Can.
Stout Man follows, a cover of The Stooges’ Cock in my Pocket. There’s a story going round that M.E.S. challenged the band to learn this song – and that this version is an early take from a CD which M.E.S. found on the floor of a tour bus, and he decided to use that rather than later, polished versions. A brief but illuminating insight into the way he works! The track is rough and ready and completely hilarious, Mark’s voice is right at the front of the mix, as he gnarls and gurgles his way through lyrics about a ‘a big fat man, pushin a little pram!’ The excellent guitar solo at the end is surprisingly trad for The Fall.
Then comes the album’s centrepiece, and not just one of the best Fall tracks of recent times, but ever. Ten minutes off utter, utter, utter joy: Auto Chip 2014-2016. Now, I had heard a nascent version of this on last year’s live album, and wondered how it would sustain over a whole ten minutes. I should not have worried – it fills its time beautifully and in fact whilst listening to it you wish it could go on longer, or forever! So what’s it like? Imagine Television’s Marquee Moon railroaded by Neu! and you’re halfway there. A monotonous, propellant bassline, a three-note guitar riff, and fantastic drumming, over which Mark E. Smith declaims in his unique inimitable style. That could describe any Fall song – and is the key to the genius of this track. Always different, always the same, as John Peel once said.
The genius of Auto Chip is the way it builds and builds and builds, sometimes cutting back, and then returning at full force. Argh! Mere words aren’t enough! It is indescribably good. Lyrically, Mark seems to be mourning the plight of English musicians: ‘How bad are English musicians… suffering?’ At the end he growls ‘What else you get for Christmas boy? Well done!’ as if congratulating Greenway on his performance. And rightly so – his chiming guitar resonates back into Fall history to the Peel session version of New Puritan. Oh, this is The Fall all right, cock. At their very, very best.
Next, Pledge!, another long track (over six minutes), and one of their weirdest. Up there with Mollusc in Tyrol or Papal Visit in the WTF? stakes. Good – the Fall should be weird. A whole album like this would be hell, but in this context it works perfectly and adds another dimension to the album. It starts with the fartiest synths this side of Rubberband Man by Yello, and chunders on in a sludgy morass of bass, atonal synths and churning, malformed guitar. Mark E. Smith is having a go at crowd-funding – ‘When you ask for creative money – pledge!’ At one point, he shouts, alarmingly and hilariously, ‘KIDNAP BONO PLEDGE!!!’
After two such mammoth epics, Snazzy comes as something of a respite. A brief, poppy, jazzy, even funky number, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and is soon elbowed out of the way by another mammoth epic, Fibre Book Troll (aka Facebook Troll). There is an earlier version of this which is very good, if rather polite, but this version – wow. It’s utterly impolite, and rips its way out of the speakers. ‘I wanna fuckin’ Facebook troll!’ shrieks Mark, his voice sounding speeded up (in the technical rather than pharmaceutical sense). It all builds to an overpowering crescendo and ends with thirty seconds of ear-piercing whistling, which is hilarious on first listen, but becomes rather annoying on further exposure. But hey, this is The Fall, they aren’t here to make you feel comfortable – quite the opposite.
Quit iPhone ends the album, and musically it’s cut from the same cloth as Venice and Stout man, even sharing some of the same riffs. On first listen it seems out of place but it’s a good way to wrap up the album and is a great pop song in its own right, and a curmudgeonly rant against tablet-obsessed twats: ‘Why can’t you just leave it alone? Why can’t you just quit that iPhone?’ The song and the album ends with Mark E Smith crooning: ‘My eye muscle is bright as I stare the morn, and I see the citadel of Media City shining bright,’ and the track cuts out on an intake of breath, as did 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter.
And then you play it again, and again, and again, because it’s brilliant. I say once more, Sub-Lingual Tablet is a fantastic Fall album, up there with their very best. They, and their leader, show no sign of slowing down. The Fall remain a wonderful and frightening work in progress, an ever-growing (and growling) body of work unmatched in its creative drive, scope and vision. Pah, words! Just buy it, and listen to it, loudly! If you’re lucky, you’ll be in; if not, well, I pity thee.
All hail the glory of The Fall!