Reviews: The Fall - This Nation’s Saving Grace
“Sch-tick” reads the cover of the Fall’s 1985 release, This Nation’s Saving Grace, and it shouldn’t take long to realize why. Most post-punk bands were a somber bunch. The rest were smiling, brainy quirks. The Fall, on the other hand, were pissed off and funny as hell. Unfailingly rude, incalculably hip, and undeniably intellectual, Mark E. Smith may be England’s greatest post-modern poet. Where Morrissey fancies himself the reincarnation of a sassy Oscar Wilde, Smith channels a ﬁrebrand Thoreau, or an unromantic Kerouac, or maybe just himself. His commanding presence has something to do with his uncanny ability to sell himself as the sanest person in any room. Thanks in no small part to his manic consistency, there is no Fall album that doesn’t sound like a Fall album.
That being said, This Nation’s Saving Grace was a fairly controversial release. While it’s often cited as their best and most appealing album, some long-time fans consider it a dud; the first step in the fall of the Fall. To these true believers, Brix Smith was the Yoko Ono of the post-punk underground. Brix quite literally married in to the Fall in 1983, and she brought pop-craft in with her. The band had long been making songs, some (“The Classical” from Hex Enduction Hour) more song-like than others (“Hip Priest” from the same), but Brixy decided it was time to get some more Rock & Roll focus. The first record on which she featured, 1983’s Perverted By Language, was a bit of a brick wall, difficult to dissemble, but surprisingly structured. Grace is the product of a careful pairing down of the ideas explored on Language, particularly the analysis of these things called “riffs” which, at the time, were a completely newfangled concept for the group.
It’s not that they’re necessarily excited to have us on board. There’s plenty here to scare the feeble-eared on back to their Joy Division. Cinderblock-barrage riffs on tracks like “Barmy” and “Spoilt Victorian Child” are intertwined with curdling washes of rip-tide guitar haze that feel like audio fever. “I Am Damo Suzuki” juxtaposes cat-screech chords with proudly off-tempo rumble, all punctuated by Mark E’s possessed mumble-shouts.
More than just a sharpening of their sound, Grace stands as a major cultural statement; a sort of British Daydream Nation. It casts loners and losers and psychopaths in leading roles, and wrestles with the dim prospects of defining oneself as an individual in a world that shuns its outliers. The settings are bleak at best, neon-plastic dystopias sold as wonderlands. “L.A.” evokes its subject’s paper-thin character perfectly behind a wall of bouncing New Order synths and trendy guitar twists. On “My New House” and “What You Need”, Smith discusses the sterility of massive consumption and its implications on the human condition.
It all comes to a head on “Paintwork”, a stunning anthem constructed from tape samples recorded in Mark’s lonely hotel room. The song is singular, unimposing, beautiful, and vulnerable, unlike anything to come out of Smith’s head before. What starts as a diary entry transfigures itself into a plea for understanding from a true genius enigma. The beat fades from a pitter-patter of tongue clicks to a thump of impersonal drum machine kicks. Guitars sweet and soft and natural become fuzz laced and charged in the blink of an eye. “People say, ‘Hey Mark, you’re spoiling all the paintwork’.”
The album’s title is a bit of a blatant joke, but ends up not being too far off. Whether they meant to or not, the Fall managed to create something truly special with “This Nation’s Saving Grace”. They had left their stylistic mark long before, but what chance would Stephen Malkmus have had to dig up Live at the Witch Trials if a few tracks from here hadn’t become college radio hits? Age old arguments about “selling out” aside, this is still an incredibly challenging album. It hands out as many frustrations as rewards. The most wonderful part is when the frustrations start to grow on you, and suddenly Mark E. Smith becomes your best friend.
Final Rating - A