In the face of changing political times, Sleaford Mods are as unyielding as ever. This Nottingham-based post-punk duo have been both praised and derided for their strict adherence to the sound that they have established across their previous material, with English Tapas being their latest full-length studio effort. Something the band — consisting of vocalist Jason Williamson and musician Andrew Fearn — cannot be denied, however, is how unique their sound is. Fusing an undeniably English punk aesthetic that pulls heavily from the mod subculture with a style of vocal delivery that sounds like the East Midland’s answer to Wu-Tang Clan, Williamson’s semi-spoken word, semi-rapped, semi-shouted diatribes atop Fearn’s repetitious, minimalist post-punk instrumentals, typically consisting of just a drum and bass ostinato, create a distinct sound that cannot be pinned down to any one genre, nor can it be compared to any other artist, really. Whilst one may wish to call Sleaford Mods punk, post-punk, rap-punk, post-rock, experimental hip hop or whatever else, their sound is perhaps best described as the anxieties of the British working class concerning the politics and culture of austerity-era Britain collectively yelled through a megaphone at bemused by-standers. Despite Jason Williamson having been releasing music under the Sleaford Mods name since 2007, it wasn’t until Fearn joined in 2012 and the group signed to Harbinger Sounds for the release of Austerity Dogs that they began to make traction in the industry, and their 2014 album, Divide and Exit, saw the band finally breakout into the mainstream. Whilst I personally found this album relatively enjoyable, I also found it to be rather one-dimensional with regards to how little the duo would deviate from the blueprint they had laid out for themselves. I could certainly see the appeal, but with Fearn’s post-punk beats being so minimalist at times, it felt somewhat like a dishevelled rant with some loosely-connected instrumentation hanging in the background. Thankfully, Sleaford Mods’ next album, 2015’s Key Markets, addressed these issues significantly, and saw the band assume a much more cohesive structure. Fearn’s instrumentals were still minimalist, but they displayed more variety from track-to-track, whilst Williamson’s vitriolic tirades were more focussed and more witty, with the vocalist even incorporating some sung hooks on certain songs. In my opinion, Key Markets was such a success because it didn’t see Sleaford Mods abandon their pre-established blueprint in any way; rather they built on it significantly as to make it far more appealing. With the announcement of English Tapas, the group’s first record with Rough Trade Records, I was left intrigued as to whether or not the duo would push the boat out any further, or if they would simply stick to what they know to have worked on Key Markets. Ultimately, whilst the development between Sleaford Mods’ last album and English Tapas is not as pronounced as that which was evident between their previous two releases, the band nevertheless build further on their sound in certain regards, as to make for another invigorating record that suffers little from the one-dimensionality of some of their previous material.
Army Nights opens English Tapas where Key Markets left off. The track is founded on a simple but effective drum and bass groove that is very typical of Sleaford Mods, and Williamson’s first appearance is with a sung refrain that provides one of the catchiest moments on the record right from the onset. Army Nights feels like a track that is as close to conventionality as Sleaford Mods can get, following a relatively standard structure with a pre-chorus and a refrain, whilst the upbeat groove over the verse emphasises the buoyancy and energy of Williamson’s tongue-in-cheek ramblings, making for a song that really is quite easy to get into. It should be said that Williamson’s lyrics have not solely covered topics of a political nature, with many songs amongst the band’s previous material covering a variety of topics, from people who obsess over material possessions to their manager’s bad habit of farting on the tour bus. Even still, Williamson’s rants that do not concern any political issues quite commonly take a look at a particular group of people in society and poke fun at them, with Army Nights being a humorous jab at people, particularly men, who go to the gym largely out of vanity and to fuel their ego. During his invigorating performance, Williamson makes many a funny observation, with a stand-out one being the tendency of these types of gym-goers to not particularly care about their health, or care about it in a very shallow fashion (“Lobbing down the vodka ’cause it’s calorie-free”). Army Nights is an interesting choice for the opener as it reflects a limited amount of the recurring themes across English Tapas, with few moments on the record coming off as light-hearted and plainly funny as this song.
Indeed, the humour displayed on English Tapas reflects a much darker comedy and a sort of sardonicism to Williamson’s lyricism that can certainly be found on Sleaford Mods’ previous output, but never quite to this degree. Time Sands, for instance, takes on a rather grim topic, reflected by the more downbeat instrumental arrangement, which reins in Williamson’s usual electrifying vocal delivery significantly, with the wordsmith instead opting for a toned-down, largely sung performance. The cherry on top to mark this dark change of pace is the sample of chirping crickets that is looped throughout the track. On the lyrical side of things, Williamson seems to be telling the story of a typical Monday rush hour through the eyes of a man who’s starting his day off high on drugs and alcohol. With Williamson’s lyrics being almost as barren as the instrumentation, the meaning behind this song is rather vague, but its purpose seems to be to implore the listener to contemplate the reasons as to why this man is high at eight in the morning, rather than jump straight to criticising him for being a lowlife addict. Indeed, it most definitely seems that lines such as, “heartbreak lays upon the shelf of this, another hell” are intended to evoke a more sympathetic response from the listener. The drearier side to English Tapas is further reinforced on Drayton Manored, which, despite having the most hilarious name of any song on the record, has been described by Williamson as a “grim tale of mid-life excess; the trap of manageable substance abuse hanging in a world of paranoia and hatred. An acceptable existence then, in this modern age of nothingness, where the soul rots as people walk by.” With lines like, “Trip to Spar is like a trip to Mars” and the added mouth fart noises, it’s easy to see this as an amusing song, but the way in which Williamson bluntly exposes hollow British activities (“Lobbin’ down one-pint cans of imported shit”) and contemplates the disconnect people feel with one another (“Human beings are like adjacent lines / Like a tube map or whatever / A mass of lines that occasionally cross each other / But never say anything”) reveals a dark hue hidden amongst the comedy. Never has Williamson covered such topics with quite this level of cynicism, but the slightly sardonic, and often times introspective, way in which he conveys these concepts makes for an incredibly engaging listen.
Of course, English Tapas is a Sleaford Mods record and, as such, there is no shortage of politically-charged songs here, often with a tongue-in-cheek attitude employed by Williamson as to disparage his targets in the most working class manner possible. Moptop is one of the most obvious examples of this on the record, with much of the song being dedicated to ridiculing the current Secretary of State, Boris Johnson, and everything about his character, from his dopey haircut to his deceitful pursuits of self-interest. Carlton Touts is a witty song that compares the middle class’ disdain for the working class to the way in which people see ticket touts as parasitic lowlifes. Williamson’s lyrics on this track, atop Fearn’s minimalist post-punk ostinato, feature perhaps the most memorable chorus on the album, with, “The angel of the Midlands has flown away / Probably south” being both clever and poignant, as is the vocalist’s comparison of British patriotism to pub grub. Williamson’s gripes with a manufactured sense of patriotism, particularly surrounding the Brexit vote, carry onto Snout, which is easily the most Sleaford Mods-y track on the entire record, both lyrically and musically. Fearn’s sparse beat — consisting of only a bass guitar and drums, as is common place for the duo — repeats throughout the entire song, with Williamson’s disjointed harangue being only loosely connected to the rhythmic pattern, assuming the kind of stream-of-conscious approach that appeared on Sleaford Mods’ earlier material. Williamson doesn’t solely tackle political issues on this cut, rather he restlessly flows between topics that he covers with his most snide and candid delivery on the album, which is epitomised by the opening question-and-answer line of “Do you wanna know where that man is from? / He’s on Snapchat, you cunt”. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments on this track, with Williamson’s sarcastic comment, “How dare I slam the uniform of the working class” that follows his joke about Superdry clothing, being a stand-out line for me, especially when it’s proceeded by, “Condemn me please, you wanker”. Indeed, what Snout signifies in the context of English Tapas is that Sleaford Mods have not sacrificed their individual, bare-faced, crass, punk foundation one bit, rather they have simply expanded it, creating a much more diverse and refreshing sound.
Ultimately, English Tapas is a demonstration that Sleaford Mods no longer suffer from a one-dimensional sound, as they prove themselves to be a very versatile band working within their own trademark paradigm, with this record being ever so slightly more diverse than the duo’s last effort, both lyrically and musically. In Williamson’s department, not only is he pushed to incorporate more varied styles of vocal delivery on this album, but his lyrics are also more diverse both in terms of the topics covered and the way in which he covers them. Fearn’s beats remain minimal and frank, but are also more varied with regards to both the styles incorporated and the means of utilising them, as evidenced by the articulated variety of tempo and general mood across these tracks. All in all, English Tapas stands as what is likely the pinnacle of Sleaford Mods’ work thus far, encompassing everything that has made the band such a spectacle in the modern punk scene, whilst integrating broader ideas into the mix as to further the duo’s name brand.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10