Since COVID first raised its ugly head at the beginning of last year, there has been no shortage of records released that have been billed as lockdown albums. Too many of them, shorn of the fact that they were imagined or recorded during lockdown, have had little else of interest to recommend them to the listener. Spare Ribs, Sleaford Mods’ newest missive, is perhaps the first example of a lockdown album that manages to have something interesting to say about the current situation and avoid the pitfalls of its companions.
There has been no attempt here to go acoustic or dramatically shake up the sound as a creative or necessary response to being shut up at home. That might, in part, be due to the already stripped back approach the band takes. Which is not to say that the record simply re-treads the path of its predecessors. Andrew Fearn gets a lot of mileage out of his musical approach, applying his stripped back sensibilities to a range of genres. ‘Shortcummings’ is a classic Sleaford Mods slice of angular bass and driving drums, ‘Out There’ is slowed down, atmospheric industrial reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode, whilst the eponymous ‘Spare Ribs’ plays like a minimalist house workout. There’s a confidence and an effortlessness to how these disparate influences are marshalled together to form an arresting foundation for Jason Williamson’s state of the nation lyrical broadsides.
He’s not short of things to say, and who can blame him. He tackles topics both weighty and mundane with his trademark blend of keen-eyed naturalism, acerbic humour, and bursts of surrealism.
Lockdown itself features heavily. ‘Top Room’ views it through a highly personal lens, capturing the claustrophobia of life at home with just your thoughts and family for company, waiting for “something to come out of my phone that ain’t there”. ‘Out There’ considers the crisis’s impact at a societal level – from the bigotry of people’s quest for blame (“it ain’t the foreigners and it ain’t the fucking Cov”) to the surreal nature of ‘6ft conversations’ being as close to human contact as we normally come. Both songs reach to past, not painting it as idyllic, but holding its moments as memories to be cherished and dreamed of in comparison to the present.
The songs don’t just explore purely topical concerns. Some of their subjects are ones Williamson has approached in the past. On ‘Nudge It’ he takes aim at affluent musicians engaging in class tourism, conjuring up the image of them “Stood outside an highrise / Trying to act like a gangster”, underlining their fraudulent behaviour by repeatedly comparing them to mimes. On ‘All Day Ticket’ he explores he mundanity of the daily grind, his half-sung assertion that “the job’s not so bad” immediately undermined by his admitting that it “takes it out of you, so slowly out of you”. The way that second line unfurls is further evidence of Williamson’s control of his craft, the repetition of “out of you” calling to mind the drudgery of years spend ploughing through identikit working days.
The band’s confidence and control, developed over an impressive recent run of albums, is perhaps what allows them to finish with the most atypical song on offer here. On ‘Fishcakes’, William adopts an oddly touching singing style to look back on his childhood. Whilst acknowledging its challenges, the song’s chorus offers the defiant assertion that ‘when it mattered, and it always did / At least we lived’. It ends the record on a positive note, and tempers some of the rage visible elsewhere. Both it and the album it closes are the work of a group at the top of their game.
Words by Will Collins.