I’ve just finished reading the second bunch of extracts from Mark E Smith’s autobiography in this morning’s Guardian, and I must confess to being a bit disappointed. I guess “Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith” could have gone two ways: a dense and profoundly untrustworthy surrealist tract that followed on from those vividly impenetrable things he used to write for NME as Roman Totale back in the ‘80s; or a massively extended Smith rant, the contents of which we’ll be generally familiar with after three decades of admittedly entertaining interviews.
Foolish as it may be to judge a book by a bunch of extracts – and extracts, at that, which barely touch on the specifics of The Fall – it seems that “Renegade” falls squarely into the latter category, reading like tidied-up saloon bar rambles, with Smith optimistically pitched by the publishers as a kind of pseudo-countercultural Jeremy Clarkson. Among some stuff we already know Smith believes – smoking and speed are quite nice, journalists are “youngish blokes who can’t handle their drink”, band members are expendable, especially guitarists – there’s one insight that caught my attention.
Smith claims – exaggerates, perhaps – that he can’t stand clutter and only has “three chairs in the house: one for the wife, one for me and one for a guest.” Interesting, but I’d rather hoped that “Renegade” would be a kind of extension of Smith’s lyrical voice – in the same way, I suppose, that the fluent, elliptical style of “Chronicles” so evidently complemented the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan.
Traditional succour, I guess, arrives around the same time as “Renegade” in the shape of “Imperial Wax Solvent”, something like the 27th studio album released by The Fall. The American band who figured on “Reformation Post TLC”, and the psychedelic tang they brought with them, have predictably been given the boot. In their place comes another bunch of mysterious musicians, men whose names even the most devoted fans will struggle to remember.
They have, though, become involved in one of the more ambitious albums produced by the latterday Fall. It starts well, with some shambolic jazz and curdled muttering about “James Loaded Brown” on “Alton Towers”, then rolls into the terrific “Wolf Kidult Man”, that could just about pass for something off “Bend Sinister”. As could the thumping bits of Smith’s agitated epic of self-justification, “50 Year Old Man”, though the sprawling collage of this one also takes in some clattery Faustian improv and a spectacularly damaged banjo interlude before resolving itself into at least another two good vintage Fall tunes.
Seemingly the only way Smith can work out how to end “50 Year Old Man” is by shouting “Fade out” and after that, as is traditional with Fall records, things get a bit spotty. There’s a capricious cover (The Groundhogs’ “Strange Town”), a lead vocal by Elena Poulou on the chundering, indignant singalong “I’ve Been Duped” and some pound shop acid house (“Taurig”) in the next three tracks.
The second half of the album hasn’t captured my attention quite as strongly, though today, as I make a proper effort to concentrate, it definitely sounds better than usual. “Can Can Summer” has an uncharacteristically airy swing to it, beneath the overlapping mutters. “I like to relax with tobacco and sugar,” Smith snarls on “Latch Key Kid”, representative of a particularly unpleasant new, deeper, rancorous voice that he keeps trying out here.
There’s a danger, as “Is This New” bats along with unusual clarity, that I might get traditionally carried away and say that “Imperial Wax Solvent” is the best Fall album since, oh, sometime when they had members whose names I could remember. I’m beginning to think it may be better than the last one I really liked, “The Real New Fall LP”, but in truth it’s so long since I played that, it’s impossible to make that judgment.
The Von Sudenfed album is the Smith product that I’ve found most enduring in the past decade or so, which possibly suggests that he’d be more consistent working with musicians of a certain, um, pedigree. But then maybe such orthodoxy defeats the point of The Fall, and would make them lose some of the idiosyncracies that I think may be missing from “Renegade”.
And maybe later Fall albums aren’t things to treasure forever, but to perpetually renew. That in the same way Smith uses and discards bandmembers, we should do the same with his records. I doubt I’ll ever choose to play “Imperial Wax Solvent” ahead of, say, “This Nation’s Saving Grace”. But for the next fortnight or so, it’ll do just fine.