In a 2015 interview with the American music mag The Fader, grime artist Skepta offered one of the most succinct accounts of the British Isles ever produced by an artist. “England is so black and white. Like a burger with nothing on it. No salad, nothing. That’s why” he concluded, “it’s so real.” A year earlier, the video for 'Tied up in Nottz' that introduced Sleaford Mods to a significant portion of the population, myself included, captured this same sentiment. Filming the two members of the band travelling around on the back of a bus, taking a route I regularly took myself during the three years I lived in Nottingham, the Englishness is so thick you can almost feel it bleeding through the screen. But seeing this blandness represented so unashamedly was weirdly exhilarating. As a city, Nottingham is one of the purest examples of this type of British realness. The lifeblood of the city is this enmeshed greyness, but, contradictorily this is also the main source of its energy, vitality and most importantly humour. Sleaford Mods have in fact built there entire musical output on top of this notion. If we’re entirely honest with ourselves, England is in large swathes culturally deprived and, in fact, a bit shit. Rather than serving as a hindrance, Sleaford Mods harness this Englishness into explosive creative energy. Despite the pessimistic outlook that their music is often presented as pervading, Sleaford Mods might be one of the few things to instil some kind of semblance of optimism into the idea of being English.
Anyone expecting a new Sleaford Mods album to traverse suddenly into new sonic territory will be widely disappointed and in fact should probably question why they even listen to the band in the first place. Andrew Fearn’s instrumentals sound much the same as they always have. Meaning they sound largely like the rhythm section of a post-punk band produced using the midi sounds on a demo copy of GarageBand. Occasionally slipping into the rhythmic patterns of various dance music sub-genres. For example, ‘Cuddly’ has the skittering, half-step drums of early dubstep. The album title could almost be a self-knowing jab at the overall lack of variety on display here. Whereas tapas would infer a plethora of different tastes and experiences, of course the English equivalent would be one where each dish tastes pretty much the same.
The more compelling contribution to Sleaford Mods however, is still the idiosyncratic lyrics of Jason Williamson. Rather than the uncluttered, literal and direct language often expected to be utilised when conveying working class experiences, Jason Williamson’s lyrics are often full of surrealist or absurdist imagery, idiomatic expressions, and confounding, extended metaphors that can sometimes challenge but are always rewarding. The materials he uses to build this poetry to reflect England isn’t the pastures green of Blake or the daffodils of Wordsworth, but the items and brands that we are constantly bombarded with in consumer culture. It’s a version of poetic language where the Labour Party is compared to a tube of Smarties from a vending machine and the bleak future that awaits us is in equal parts compared to the decline of high street staple BHS and a large bag of Quavers. Sometimes it isn’t entirely clear what these metaphors and similes actually mean, what exactly does the clothing brand Superdry have to do with the Magna Carta, for example? But through these strange connections, Williamson creates the effect of objects and symbols that you are constantly surrounded by suddenly become alienating, weird and opaque.
A song like ‘Just Like We Do’ however, shows that even Williamson’s word play has its limits in terms of what it can transform into an engaging topic. Much like The Streets, who Sleaford Mods are sometimes compared to, their observations on the quotidian become much less interesting when applied to the nature of fame, something totally separate from the experience of most people’s lives.
For the most part however, Williamson is a thoroughly entertaining guide through the characters and images that populate these songs. Tracks like ‘Snout’ or ‘Carlton Touts’ offer unconstrained bursts of frustration, with Williamson piling syllable on top of syllable without much concern for rhythm or meter. On the latter track Williamson breaks from his train of thought to exclaim simply, “What the Fuck is happening?” in total exasperation. Overall, Williamson is less interested in tackling the macro politics of elephants in the room such as Brexit head on, instead favouring a method that explores how these issues seep into the minutiae of the micro and the everyday. Exploring how these larger events inform the behaviours and thinking patterns of people whose primary occupations are anything but political. Williamson paints portraits of people who are, “Munched on second hand grub” and “Fired up two pints for a fiver drunk”. That famed English past time binge drinking, in particular, is presented as a kind of microcosm of societal ills, in which “Life isn’t anything until you start drinking there”.
‘Drayton Mannered’ gets at the fundamental weirdness of just being a person in modern society and the everyday alienation we feel from each other. Where a “Trip to Spa is like a trip to Mars” and “Human beings are like adjacent lines … a mass of lines that occasionally cross each other but never say anything ever”. On their ninth studio album, Sleaford Mods have continued to develop their oddball take on the state of the nation. As things progress in this country, where they’re probably only going to get worse, god knows we need them now more than ever.