The link between the Nottingham punk/rap/rant/dance duo Sleaford Mods and "times like these" couldn't be much stronger. NME called them "the stripped-back sound of austerity Britain." The Guardian argued they were "Britain's angriest band" and speculated that they could be "the authentic voice of working-class Britain." Rolling Stone, meanwhile, dubbed their new album, English Tapas, "Post Brexit Punk Hop." (You kiss your mother with that mouth?)
It's tempting to read the group through the lens of political commentary, anger, and protest. And all of that is valid and real, but it's really only part of what makes Sleaford Mods records so exciting. (P.S. It's "slee-ferd," not "slay-ferd.")
The political element in their songs is a function of singer/writer Jason Williamson's verbal style, which is a rare combination of relentless invention, dexterous wit, and unadorned bluntness. For every gob of spit he spews at a corrupt politician ("Cameron's hairdresser got an MBE / I said to my wife, 'You better shoot me'"), he's got an ironic observation about the price of getting what you wish for ("Bring back the neolibs / I'm sorry, I didn't fucking mean to pray for anarchy!"), or a throwaway slang phrase ("Brex City Roller") that becomes indispensable.
[[[A lot of Sleaford Mods lyrics are full of references that will evade the comprehension of even the most insufferable Anglophile (guilty), but they continue to reveal layers—and more importantly, continue to sound great—after 10 or 20 listens.
And anyway, in a song like "B.H.S.," it's less important to know that those initials stand for a failed British department store whose owner screwed his employees for a life of post-bankruptcy luxury than it is to consider the implications of a line in the second verse: "You can't blame the betrayed."
Even better are the moments when he drops lines like this one, in the anti-social-media screed "Under the Plastic and NCT": "We pander to the camera / And we want to be observed / We don't get what we ask for / We get what we deserve." Verses like that keep pop music in business no matter how bleak things get.
Still, you don't listen to songs because they're interesting to read.]]]
The star of Sleaford Mods is the ranting juggernaut of Williamson's voice. His vocals are punk without affectation, rap without appropriation, and social critique without the ideological cant that makes pious liars out of otherwise well-intentioned would-be artists.
He's virile, abrasive, blunt, hilarious, unhinged, and above all, direct. As in direct address. As in "You better think about the shit hairdo you got, mate." It sounds like he's unscrewing the top of his skull and funneling the thoughts he can't contain straight into your ears. But like all forms of performance that sound raw and unfiltered, this style took a long time to develop.
Before meeting his Sleaford collaborator Andrew Fearn, Williamson knocked around in British indie-rock bands for decades, trying and failing to make a name for himself. And the desperation that followed led to a strange innovation.
"I just started talking instead of singing," Williamson told me in a phone interview. "I was writing lyrics—pages of lyrics—about just going up to the shop and buying a can of lager, you know? I'd gotten to such a low point that all I had left was just to tell that story. I don't know why it came about. I think it was solely initially influenced by failure and alienation and being at the bottom of the barrel, really."
He followed the inspiration, which more or less consisted of stripping away the adornments of songwriting and rock 'n' roll performance conventions until there were no elements left to strip. There was a beat. There were words. There was a structure. There was only a hint of melody. But it wasn't really rap. How could it have been?
Williamson's new style drew on a powerful love for Wu-Tang Clan, which had itself built on his intense feeling for late-1980s hiphop records like Bigger and Deffer and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
"It was the vocal" that attracted him to those records, he said. "It's hiphop, obviously, but it reminded me of punk, as well. Aggro music, do you know what I mean? I had a connection with that, obviously."
But whether out of deference or simple common sense, Williamson steered clear of adopting the superficial trappings of hiphop culture in his new creative endeavor, which is part of what accounts for Sleaford Mods sounding both new and familiar.
Unlike the many 21st-century bands that have tried to get over by stapling rap verses onto rock arrangements, Williamson and Fearn have taken the components of punk, beat-driven electronic music, and hiphop—i.e., the last three music subcultures to go aboveground in the past 20 years—and made an utterly singular-sounding hybrid of them.
Add to that the fact that Williamson has emerged as a writer of distinction and a funny, formidable presence on the cloying pop landscape, and you could be forgiven for feeling something like hope that maybe not every single thing has been scorched by the flames that are hungrily engulfing everything you ever cared about.
Their brand-new record, English Tapas, is less expressly political than the last two (Key Markets and Divide and Exit), but its social observations reflect the larger political reality of being overwhelmed, surrounded, and trying to remember why you shouldn't feel utterly fucked.
Between the UK voting for Brexit and the US electing Donald Trump, a lot of people started saying things like "Don't worry, it's going to be a great time for punk rock and protest art."
With sentiments like that, who needs enemies?
"I grew up in the '80s," Williamson told me, apropos of politics and music, "and I remember, it wasn't really about Making Political Music. It was about just, if you wanted to do music, you applied yourself to it, and generally speaking, you became political, because everything was so politicized, like it is now. If you've got anything about you, you're going to be doing stuff that is political whether you like it or not. You can't ignore things anymore. You just can't."
But on the other hand...
"It was shit 10 years ago, too," Williamson points out. "I understand that it was quite an atrocity for your administration to become what it's become, but, you know, it was pretty bleak in [the US] 10 years ago. It's always been shit, so there's always been plenty to talk about. Yeah, things are a bit more obvious now. Things are stepping up a bit more, and what we're heading toward nobody knows, but at the minute, it doesn't seem good."
It feels limiting to confine Sleaford Mods to the role of a band for times like these, but these times are as good, or bad, a time as any for a band that matters.