War, rising energy costs, inflation. A sclerotic political class and a divided country. The post-Brexit malaise, acts of national self-harm and other doomed flights from reality. Despair, anger and alienation. Has it ever been worse out there?
“The rot’s set in,” says Sleaford Mods’ soulful ranter-inquisitor Jason Williamson. “So much it’s trampled into our consciousness to the point where we have become as one with the Conservative Party. We’re all Conservative MPs now… servants of this really bleak sort of Aldi nationalism.”
Welcome to UK Grim. Building on the unique, insurrectionary strengths of previous records while refining them in gripping new ways, Sleaford Mods’ twelfth album is a stunning step up. This is nothing less than a defining band and voice of their generation – like The Jam, The Clash or Public Enemy were - more fully realised than ever before. At a musical moment where so much seems to exist simply to melt into air, it is, unmistakably, the real deal.
Begun in the lockdowns of 2021, added to at JT Soars the band’s go to work space, and finished at musical brain Andrew Fearn’s home studio, UK Grim finds the group at their most immaculately enraged, disquieting and ferociously poetic. Following 2021’s Spare Ribs – their third top ten album since 2019 and their most successful yet – it is, like all their records, a diagnosing of the sicknesses of society, a panacea, and a psychological blot test where the listener finds themselves revealed.
Though largely conceived before the tumults of 2022, UK Grim eerily anticipates the convulsions of a society losing its mind, narrated by a man determined to confront hypocrisies, especially his own. 14 watertight tracks take in stripped punk, barbed electronics and haunted hip hop, and subjects as diverse as the pernicious right-wing narrative, robbing from the till at work, a recovering addict’s nostalgia for drugs and, on Apart From You, an admission of existential aloneness. They are too brutally descriptive and psychologically blunt to be simple protest songs. Williamson says Covid ennui, life online, and experience of how the music industry works all folded into the album: however it happened, this could still be the angriest Sleaford Mods record yet.
“I once read in an Oasis review, ‘they’ve learned the art of subtlety,’ and I think we have, in a way,” he says. “So I didn’t really think it was that aggressive until my wife turned around and said, ‘This album’s really fucking angry.’ Social media doesn’t help… there’s a lot of imaginative hitting people again.”
He might be talking about the cold-eyed D.I.Why, which addresses online dealings with various tattooed, bearded bands from the DIY punk scene (that Sleaford Mods pretty much spearheaded the form’s modern, overground UK incarnation is an irony to relish). With lyrics including, “not another white bloke aggro band, oh yeah we’re all the fucking same, let’s not kid ourselves,” it also lets out the lairy Jason who threatens to punch people.
“I’m gonna get some shit for that, but fuck ‘em,” he says. “I had a lot of shit off that community over the last year or so. I got really pissed off with this idea of, ‘I am completely and utterly right because I’m at the bottom of the pile and you’re a cunt because you’ve got a bit of money.’ But I think I took it too far with certain bands, and I regret it.”
Since they broke out with 2014’s Divide and Exit, Sleaford Mods have had increasing opportunity for frank exchanges, at home and abroad. A tireless working band, their maxi-minimalist live shows notably included a homecoming at the 10,000-capacity Nottingham Motorpoint Arena in 2021: other landmarks in their rise include US late night TV appearances, headlining festivals, and charting across Europe with Spare Ribs. One distinguished admirer is Iggy Pop, who’s paid tribute with a personal take on the band’s drug bender grand guignol Chop Chop Chop.
Still, it’s curious to think that, as Fearn says, Sleaford Mods’ creative process is harmonious. Remarkably, it’s also one that has evolved and renewed itself without the need to bring in outside producers. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but you have to progress,” says Fearn, whose wiry, expectation-defying productions are half the package and the perfect soundtrack for Williamson’s wired East Midlands *sprechgesang. “For me (UK Grim) has been the idea of, just bring in more flavours - have some bangers, some hip hop tracks that are midtempo, get that mixture that’s been on all the albums. I think Jason’s thinking a bit more about what he’s doing, we’ll do a track and then he’ll want to change some of the verses, but it’s not too laboured. It’s fairly quick and easy-going, and that’s the happy magic of it.”
As with Spare Rib’s collaborations with Billy Nomates and Amy Taylor, other hands help with UK Grim. Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw guests on the ghoulish Force 10 From Navarone: an admiring Williamson says, “She really does remind me of the early stuff that I used to do, just the way she uses one word to convey a whole story.” Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell raps on the bizarro So Trendy, a song Williamson says he’s “very wary of… a really weird track.” The album’s I Claudius, meanwhile, is a midnight of the soul adjacent to Spare Ribs’ Fishcakes, which blisters at the very notion of patriotism. Yet where else could Sleaford Mods have here come from apart from grisly, hungover, danger-to-itself England?
“Maybe we are proud of the country. Maybe we are proud to be English,” says Williamson, who’s properly viewed alongside Mark E Smith (who described the band as “about the only good thing” in 2017), Paul Weller and John Lydon as a distinctive, authoritative non-establishment UK voice. “Maybe I’m proud of the horrible grey streets and the shit weather and the stupid fashions I find myself investing in. It’s just that the English we’re proud of being is absolutely nothing like the English the authorities want to try and promote.”
And so, for a group who’ve inspired no end of musicians across the spectrum while pulling ahead in their own inimitable lane, contradictions are reconciled. “It’s important to investigate the darker side of things,” adds Williamson, who admits that despite the chaos outside, his own life has never been better. “You have to try to describe it as best you can, in an intelligent way, and then you can try and make sense of it.”
As stages, horizons and output continue to grow, Sleaford Mods will continue to do this, as a self-sustaining model of unmitigated artistic integrity. “With us, if it doesn’t work, it clearly doesn’t work,” says Fearn. “So if there’s stuff there, we’ll keep going. It’s like what Andy Warhol said - just make it, don’t overthink it. Then you’ll make those connections happen.”
”IN ENGLAND NO-ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM.”