Sleaford Mods – Austerity Dogs (Harbinger Sound, 2013)

There is a remarkable moment at the end of “Fizzy.” Jason Williamson has been barking “FIZZY!” throughout the song, a one-word chorus with so much anger that the word seems unable to contain itself. It splinters apart in his delivery, two raging pieces more sound than syllable. After his last “FIZZY,” after tossing the last shredded barbs of the word out of his mouth, he is still furious. Despite a delivery so vitriolic that it’s genuinely frightening, Williamson emits one more, truly final, open-mouthed grunt, a full-throated wretch of utterly discouraged contempt, a sound that cannot be translated into letters, let alone words.

This is the mood that occupies much of Sleaford Mods’ Austerity Dogs, a seemingly out-of-nowhere LP on Harbinger Sound. What is Steve Underwood thinking releasing a “hip hop record?” At first it almost boggles the mind – the label is well into its second decade as a platform exclusively for noise. Where are The New Blockaders? Putrifier? Ramleh? There is no piercing feedback or breaking glass to be found on Austerity Dogs. But if noise is, at its core, interference, if it exists as a force to disrupt existing systems and distort our expectations, Harbinger is the perfect label for Sleaford Mods.

From what can be gathered from the few extant interviews, Jason Williamson was born in Grantham (not Sleaford), famous not only for being voted the most boring town in England but also as the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher (Austerity Dogs, get it?). He spent years bouncing around, eventually ending up in Nottingham. He wanted to be in bands, but became frustrated and impatient at every turn. One day he started ranting over a metal track, which the engineer turned into a loop, and he was off, channeling his resentment into a series of hard-edged, hilarious songs. Consciously embracing his regional accent and employing a series of phrases that can seem as impenetrable to outsiders as the most intentionally alienating graffiti, Williamson hasn’t built a world so much as reflected one, grinding what he sees through a funnel of cynicism, resentment, and despair.

After a while he was joined by Andrew Fearn, who handles much of the work of building the tracks and provides additional vocals. The group’s on stage presence is formidable. Fearn presses play on a laptop and stands by almost passively while Williamson orates, gripping his pint glass so tightly it could burst. Williamson is now 42 years old, and rather than turn his frustration into a reason to give up, retreat, and grit his teeth as he makes his way towards death, he has forged ahead and created music that is both original and alive without allowing any space for itself to lapse into contrivance.

Austerity Dogs, following in the wake of a host of CD releases, is a rare thing these days: a new record that actually feels exciting. It’s so full of attitude, so perfectly produced. The tracks roll into one another without an ounce of breathing room, just as the words rush ahead unceasingly against the stark, inventive instrumental tracks. The atmosphere is so tense that a bass and tambourine can sound like the most menacing sound on earth. Keyboards play a subtle but crucial role, and tapes pepper the songs tastefully, as Williamson tells brutal tales of “people ripped to shreds by the whip of exploitation.” He snarls that he’s worked his “dreams off for two bits of ravioli and a warm bottle of Smirnoff under a manager that doesn’t have a fucking clue.” He takes well-deserved stabs at a harsh, unfair world in a manner so rapid-fire you find yourself wanting to take the needle back time and time again to catch something you missed. It’s exhilarating.

A special level of spite is reserved for bad music. Williamson’s seen it up close and personal, and he’s sick of it. “I fuckin’ hate rockers/Fuck your rocker shit/Fuck your progressive psych sleeve of tattoos umpler lumper blow me down with a feather/Cloak and dagger bollocks.” It’s a line that could so easily be leveled at the happy valley from which I write and all of its New Weird America lineage. Fuck your band. Fuck your email list. Fuck this blog.

That much of Williamson’s venom is directed toward the music industry serves only to strengthen our trust in him. As a musician who’s been around, he levels his anger directly at that which has wronged him: a world full of uninspired, shallow, shit-eating, back-slapping, locker room horseshit and self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing, money-laden do-gooding practiced by superstars who spend more money advertising the fact that they run charities than they actually raise for those charities. In that sense Sleaford Mods’ project is quite simple: two people who steadfastly refuse to play the ridiculous games necessary to get into the business, but too in love with music to not create it.

And “Brian Eno/What the fuck does he know?” is a line so perfect it’s almost impossible to believe that it hasn’t been done already.

On “Kill it Clean,” the last track on the record, Williamson asks over and over “Why’d you all sound the same? I came to check it out.” It is the most moving piece of the whole album: “I feel funky/I came to check it out,” Williamson says, telling us that even after an entire LP’s worth of dissatisfaction, he still expects something. What is bemoaned could be a single disappointing night at a rock club, but it could just as well serve as a commentary on the state of music in general. It is not applicable only to whiny indie pop sycophants vacuumed into tight jeans and spouting pseudo-poetic nonsense interspersed with “confessions” so trivial they could have sprung from the diary of any thirteen year old – it applies to any number of “scenes.” How do sweaty wastoids with stringy hair and black t-shirts pumping their fists to the repetitive dirge of the newest noise band differ from the tuxedo-clad ad men who scratch their cologne-drenched chins while trying to shield themselves from the glimmer of their wives’ pearl earrings at the opera house? How do the Budweiser-enhanced throats singing along at Bruce Springsteen show differ from the pot-clouded minds convincing themselves at every turn that the latest retro synth-based Krautrock rip-off group is the voice of a new dawn? They do not. It is engagement that matters, it is actually caring about the culture one imbibes. So much is received and accepted without thought. We just make the scene, man. In a land of no surprises, the Sleaford Mods are throwing their arms up and asking for somebody to fucking surprise them.

That is why it is too easy to focus on the record’s acerbic nature, to react only to the more sensational aspects: the almost unceasing anger, the bottomless pit of attitude, the relentless nature of the music. But that’s a surface take; to romanticize the gloomy streets of Nottingham in the service of somehow contextualizing the music is to deprive it of its humanity and power. What is striking time and time again is that this is also a sensitive record. The wordplay and sentiments are too fine-tuned to be the mere barkings of a dissatisfied savant, just as the backing tracks are too angular and unpredictable to simply be described as “loops.” To describe it as a hip hop record or to say “it sounds like The Fall” is to force it in a category that it doesn’t necessarily belong. Williamson makes no secret of the fact that he is an ardent fan of the Wu Tang Clan, but what of the fact that he claims not to be that familiar with The Fall? In the end, neither of those facts matter. The music has too much personality of its own to abide by these typical, one-to-one comparisons.

The danger of even discussing it is that we are too likely to fall back on popularly received modes of talking about culture. “This person met this person in this other person’s backyard” as a way of describing things. It’s nonsense, it says nothing, it’s the worst way to discuss anything. This record is so fed up with the ways people think about music, so annoyed with the slovenly mess of absurd, money/popularity/acceptance-driven ways in which most music is made. When Williamson says “do you think I’ve ignored fame and fortune for the fucking fun of it?” he is putting our reasons for liking anything on trial. He is imploring us not to be lazy.

The real challenge posed by this music, both to itself and to its audience: what next?

“You have used a word
Which means nothing.
You have given a word
The power to send men to death.
Men are not free who are sent to die.
Only those who send them are ‘free.’
You should have freedom stuffed down your fat throats.”

—Kenneth Patchen

 “I don’t want to improve my fucking life for you/You make more money out of my existence than I do.”

—Jason Williamson