Socialist Realism Done Right

Sleaford Mods’ UK Grim

If the UK had gone in a different direction over the past decade, if its leaders had remembered the people who slaved to make it great, Sleaford Mods might have become one of those novelty acts that disappear from view after a song or two.

Brexit equality. Taunton, Somerset.

Instead, the venal incompetence of the Tories made sure that the band would develop into elder statesmen of political post-punk, learning new ways to make points that never get old.

It’s an irony that the duo of Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn assuredly relish.

In an era of austerity imposed from above, they have had the opportunity to develop their brutalist minimalism into an aesthetic that has become increasingly heterogeneous, both in terms of their music and the characters Williamson’s lyrics flesh out.

The band still sound like themselves. But their identity is more broadly defined, making room for nuances that their early work discouraged.

This doesn’t mean Sleaford Mods have gone soft.

Even if their music is less monotonous than it once was and their messaging somewhat more varied, they still demand that listeners suspend their desire for diversion.

Like its predecessors, the new album UK Grim holds a mirror up to the ugliest aspects of neoliberal Britain: the disregard for human suffering by the wealthy and privileged; the cynical deployment of “bread and circus” content by the tabloids; the mobilisation of working-class resentment to target immigrants and foreigners instead of the nation’s elite.

What distinguishes Sleaford Mods from most political bands of recent years is that this mirror is positioned to show the artists themselves as well. The stirring “Force 10 From Navarone” exemplifies this difference, as Williamson’s first-person speaker repeatedly asks, “Jason, why does the darkness elope?”

As that hermetic inquiry indicates, this self-reflexivity goes hand in hand with a refusal to have the meaning in songs be too obvious. Even when the basic point is plain as day, it’s expressed obliquely.

On “Right Wing Beast”, the lyrics reminds old friends that they are still “getting mugged by the aristocracy”, with the “we” of the first verse fracturing into a tension between the song’s “I” and the “you” it addresses, implicitly berating those friends for failing to remember who their real enemy is.

Instead of reinforcing this message, however, the chorus takes a more indirect approach: “It’s been here for ages/Death’s stuck pages/Danger shuffle, watch that door/It’s been here forever/It makes the clever/Danger shuffle behind doors”.

Williamson has repeatedly acknowledged the band’s debt to hip-hop. While it’s easiest to hear this in their music, with its preference for rhythm over melody and lack of singing, his words also draw heavily from that well of inspiration.

Like his beloved Wu-Tang Clan, Williamson repeatedly takes detours that complicate and confound: how he expresses ideas matters as much as what he is trying to express.

That’s nothing new. Early tracks like “Tied up Nottz”, about his hometown of Nottingham, also communicated a lot more than a summary could convey. The difference now is that Sleaford Mods’ music has grown in the direction of his lyrics.

On UK Grim, we get a wide variety of beds, from neo-ska to Krautrock to the kind of meta-dancefloor beats favoured by LCD Soundsystem.

And there is more textural diversity within those beds as well. Fearn’s tinny keyboard beats are pushed to the point of distortion, creating a musical effect analogous to the blurring of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints, repetition with a subtle difference.

When a track contains a bass guitar, as on the stirring “Pit 2 Pit”, its analogue qualities are used to offset the digital percussion. And other instrumental embellishments, such as the 70s synthesizer of “On the Ground”, are added to the mix in a way that accentuates their tonal difference.

The greater musicality of UK Grim doesn’t detract from the band’s political goals. On the contrary, it doubles down on the complexity of Williamson’s lyrics, preventing them from falling into the one-dimensional sloganeering he mocks on the acid “DIwhy”: “You do playlists for Fred Perry, you boring cunt/And you shave your hair just above your ear/Oh yeah, not another white bloke agro band/Oh yeah, we’re all the fucking same”.

Sleaford Mods want it to be known that they would rather do something different, even if that takes them in surprising directions.

Part of what gives Sleaford Mods staying power is that Williamson understands where socialist realism went wrong. Presenting a working-class perspective is crucial. So is avoiding the negative stereotypes that circulate in Oxbridge narratives. But idealising everyone who has that perspective on principle won’t do them any favours.

You can’t transcend contradictions by pretending they don’t exist. The characters Williamson’s lyrics inhabit are undermined by anti-social impulses. The way they comment on their surroundings inevitably divides them from the sort of people they purport to represent, as “Right Wing Beast” makes explicit.

And so does Sleaford Mods’ still-surprising success, as they have acknowledged in interviews. Although obviously falling short of the impacty achieved by predecessors like The Clash or, in the hip-hop realm, Public Enemy, Sleaford Mods have still managed to achieve a level of comfort in middle age that would have seemed improbable when they were growing up working-class.

By emphasising the way that the solidarity of a first-person plural gives way to isolation and suspicion, Sleaford Mods not only deliver a crucial political insight about how the Tories’ divide-and-conquer strategy plays out but also testify to the perils they face in trying to represent a world to which they no longer have to belong.

In other words, if the band identifies with the people for whom life in the United Kingdom feels relentlessly grim, it isn’t because they have to but because they still want to.

Like all desires, though, this one is bound to be muddied by self-interest. What continues to make Sleaford Mods relevant is that they aren’t afraid to show the mess it leaves behind.

Photograph courtesy of Neil Moralee. Published under a Creative Commons license.