Mark E. Smith has, perhaps, always been a mad old coot. Even in his
20s, he had a certain filthy-bathrobed menace, as he mouthed inscrutable
threats, meandered off-topic and incessantly repeated himself. He was your
crazy grandfather before his hair turned grey, and now, with his 29th album he has finally begun to look (and sound) the part.
Ersatz G.B. finds him in fine
and vicious form, savaging Snow Patrol and laptop users and British folk
singers with geriatric venom. His band, the same since Your Future Our Clutter, locks in behind him, furnishing the
hard-hammered foundation, the funk-punk-robot rigor, that give his rantings
scale and drama and a weird euphoric edge. Consider, for instance, how “Mask
Search” bounces bodily on an elastic bass line, how its guitar twitches with
ecstatic tension, how the whole thing shimmies and pulses with sensual life,
and how Smith hems and haws above it all, muttering about encaustic and lime.
Or, the bizarre, metal-crunching “Greenway” how Smith’s gargling, ravaged voice
rises above the mayhem to inject some existential uncertainty. (“Channel
hopping the other day through Danish Rock TV, I noticed a video where the
person had a remarkable, coincidental resemblance to myself, to the video I was
in recently,” he recounts, entirely discounting the possibility that it was him.) The band’s discipline, its blocked out musical
precision, contrasts powerfully with Smith’s visionary wanderings. Neither
would work nearly as well by itself.
Smith even upends the one what-the-fuck track, “Happi Song”, the one
where his wife and keyboard player Elini Poulu sings sweetly, perhaps naively,
about a need for greater understanding.
It’s a track singularly lacking in the bile, the tight-wound violence,
the rhythmic hammering that define the Fall, and, for that reason, the album’s
weakest interval. Smith, Poulu’s mate of ten years, hovers around the back of
her track muttering and growling, and that alone comes close to redeeming it.
Ersatz G.B. is a lesser Fall
album, not as good as Your Future Our
Clutter or The Real New Fall LP,
and certainly not on a par with earlier landmarks like Slates and Hex Induction Hour.
Some of the longer tracks seem to go on for no real reason. “Monocard” even
starts and stops several times, as if the band had tired of its slow grind, but
then thinks better and picks up again.
And the six-minute long “Nate Will Not Return” starts in flames but then
gutters. You wonder if it it goes on only so that Smith can think of more words
that rhyme with “Nate.”
Even so, an energy as volcanic as Mark E. Smith’s can be expected to
spill over sometimes, and there’s enough fire and venom here to excuse
occasional soft spots. Even spitting and foaming about laptops and cell phones,
even mad as the geezer who won’t throw your ball back when it lands in his
yard, Smith has a certain kind of power. Ersatz schmersatz, he’s the real thing.
Download: “Mask Search”,
“Greenaway” JENNIFER KELLY