While Reformation Post TLC was impressive in the sense that it is coherent despite impossible odds (recorded with a last minute band after the original line-up abandoned our hero, literally, in the middle of the desert), Mark E. Smith returns with yet another Fall line-up and another even more impressive offering.
His wife, Eleni Poulou, remains in the fold on keyboards and vocals as does bassist Dave Spurr. The rest of the band is newly comprised of native English sons. But you’d have no way of guessing it from the sounds of things on Imperial Wax Solvent, probably their twenty-seventh album. Like with any Fall album, the music on their latest is drenched entirely with the open frame walls of the American garage.
How ironic that it hasn’t been offered an American release date then. But even in an elevated import-priced package, Imperial Wax Solvent is wonderfully satisfying, deserving more than just a passing nod as it’s another high-caliber, late career offering that’s as startling for its consistency as it is for its challenging aura.
The noteworthy item here is “50 Year Old Man,” an eleven-minute celebration of Smith’s cantankerous five decades with clear hints that he has no plans at curtailing his day job. “I’m a 50 year old man! / What’re you gonna do about it?” he slurs, pausing a few times to insult younger curmudgeon Steve Albini and advising the ladies that he’s “got a three foot rock hard on” before admitting that he’s “too busy to use it.”
Instead of the female form, his attention has been placed, it seems, on loading Imperial Wax Solvent with a higher degree of studio folly than what one would expect from a notoriously grumpy old codger. The album bounces between stereo and mono mixes, levels rise and fall inexplicitly, and abrupt left-turns abound. Take “50 Year Old Man” again: four minutes into the track, the band suddenly stops for a minute long banjo exercise.
Throughout Solvent, Smith’s lyrics are in top form and downright playful (“I believe the pink iPod is spewed out” – “Strangetown”) and the performances are inspired, ranging from traditional two- and three-chord minimalisms, Krautrock explorations, to post-punk grooves. There’s a real sense that Mark E. Smith is, gasp, having fun as he slides into the last half of his existence.
Considering Solvent in the late-period Fall catalog would place it near the top while not managing to reach the lofty pinnacles of such universally acclaimed Fall material like Hex Enduction Hour or This Nation’s Saving Grace. But there are a few songs here that are of equal caliber to songs on those albums. In fact, there are more than enough to provide evidence among Fall fans like myself to preach how Mark E. Smith remains as one of the brilliant elder statesmen of rock. What’s even more impressive is how he’s able to achieve this even after passing through the chaos that he intentionally creates. We really shouldn’t be referring to him in such lofty prose, all things considered. But we do, because this is exactly the type of nature we hope to sow when the aches and pains become more prevalent in our own lives. We want to be able to bash and pop, to hurl insults at the spoiled younger generations, and top every story of overcoming adversity with our own, better story. We want boners without Viagra, hipper-than-yours record collections, and bloody fistfights with dudes in our band that are half our age.
We all want to be as cool as Mark E. Smith, and with each new album, we get to live vicariously through him.
The truth is that we will never be as cool as him, and your favorite band of the moment will never really be as good as The Fall. Like Smith himself declares on the final track (“Exploding Chimney”) “Believe me kids / I’ve been through it all.” Considering this, we’re probably all too chickenshit to really live out that type of lifestyle anyway. So it’s a good thing that, judging from the sounds of Imperial Wax Solvent, Mark E. Smith is just now getting his second wind.