Few bands in recent years have been showered with as much gushing praise as Sleaford Mods. Counting Iggy Pop and John Cooper Clarke among their devotees, the duo have been hailed as an authentic antidote to the pop status quo, a vital voice for the disenfranchised and, in singer Jason Williamson’s case, a counter-cultural poet laureate for postmodern, austerity-stricken Britain.
Yet there’s something so undeniably mannered about the band, and Williamson in particular, that can undermine these claims at times: laboured wordplay that lacks the spark of Carter USM or the Smiths, the parochial vignettes that lack the Arctic Monkeys’ generosity of spirit, and the relentless scorn poured over all and sundry all give the impression of a lyricist more concerned with maintaining his own iconoclastic image than he is with anything else. What’s more, in carving out such a heavily stylised niche, the worry has always been that Sleaford Mods would struggle to develop their offering, and quickly turn stale.
This worry comes to the fore when listening to TCR. The title track begins with the same, sparse post-punk that has become producer Andrew Fearn’s stock-in-trade, and Williamson does nothing to elevate the song beyond a pastiche of itself. Williamson’s target here is the suburban family man, trying to have a night out but struggling to get the kids to settle. It’s quite amusing, but not very, and ultimately feels as if it’s been trotted out on autopilot.
Second track ‘I Can Tell’ sees Fearn experimenting with a strikingly minimalist, Suicide-esque bass-led arrangement that is instantly more engaging than the previous. Against such an insistent rhythmic backdrop, it is left to Williamson’s vocal flow to generate syncopation and dynamics, and he makes compelling features of both. The lyrics are so-so, rooted in the hum-drum commonalities of experience in “Leytonstone or a village out near Stoke on Trent”, but the desperation lurking beneath the greyness emerges vividly in the repeated refrain “I just hope everything gets pulled apart and pushed, pulled apart and bust”.
‘In Britain Thirst’, a Dancehall-inspired groove underpins a James Joycean collage of overheard xenophobic slurs (‘they’ll batter my dog’). For ‘Dad’s Corner’, Fearn’s usual bass-led post-punk is submerged in a glitchy, metallic wash, on top of which Williamson repeatedly intones “Dad’s Corner”, interspersed with fragmented lyrics that are difficult to get a thematic handle on. Closing track ‘You’re a Nottshead’ sees Williamson revert to type, barking at imbeciles in the pub and calling them cunts or “Motown wankers”. It’s not bad, but by this stage I’ve had enough of the shouting and want something else.
All in all, TCR is not entirely without merit; there are glimmers of invention here and there, notably Fearn’s exploration of new grooves and tones, the hip-hoppier moments of Williamson’s delivery and the occasional lyrics with a more universal resonance, that together could pave the way for a fresh direction in future. But too much of this EP plays safe, which, for a band who purport to be radical, is disappointing.
TCR EP is out now via Rough Trade.