No one ever went broke underestimating the conservatism of the electorate, or the ability of The Fall to keep on going. Mark E. Smith and his current set of friends are now up to their 31st studio album, relentlessly pursuing a discography that threatens to outlast time itself. However, The Fall’s apparent permanence could be one of their toughest challenges. When a combustible, shifting collective becomes a conventional band, with a line-up unchanged in six years, what keeps them interesting? The release of Sub-Lingual Tablet has seen reviewers accuse Smith of becoming a tribute act to himself. So is there a reason to listen to this The Fall album, rather than the multiple alternative choices?
Smith has yet to give an interview revealing how much he hates Sub-Lingual Tablet, as he did for album number 29 (2011’s Ersatz GB), nor has he claimed it will “terrify people”, as he did for number 30 (2013’s Re-Mit). Instead, the new album seems more confident and importantly, consistent, than for some time. It is also very funny. The opener, ‘Venice with the Girls’, is a series of semi-comprehensible complaints which seem to be about someone being ditched in favour of a girls’ holiday, while ‘Quit iPhone’ channels fury and cultural critique. The end result, however, with Smith croaking a chorus of “Why don’t you leave alone? / Why don’t you quit iPhone? / Aaarrrr…” is most comical. Meanwhile ‘Junger Cloth’, a satisfying piece of The Fall grind, seems to be a rant directed at poor typography.
It is not all impotent rage though – there are strong tracks to stand with some of the best The Fall have to offer. ‘Dedication Not Medication’ is an anti-prescription incantation with rattling, mesmeric bass. Whether it is directed at Pierce Brosnan is unclear. ‘Black Door’ is a brief, eerily melodic, psychedelic scramble. ‘Auto Chip 14-15’ is ten minutes of motorik entertainment with soaring guitar lines, and ‘Pledge’, lyrics incomprehensible but quite possibly about furniture polish, has delightfully fuzzy garage keyboards.
Not everything is a success, particularly the cover of The Stooges’ ‘Stout Man’, which features a frantic impression of Captain Beefheart. However, Sub-Lingual Tablet not only has many of the ingredients that brings The Fall fans back for more and more, it also stands out from the band’s recent recordings. It is comfortably The Fall’s album of the decade, although there will doubtless be another one along soon.