Noise Machine: The Fall “Shift Work”

Welcome to Noise Machine, a segment where I, Alex Fleming,  dive deep into the question, “Is the unlistenable music from our past still unlistenable?” – I rediscover difficult, challenging or strange music from the past because nobody needs to do this. To boldly go where we have been before, but a long while ago.

I’ve been listening to this album on repeat for a week and I think I’m turning into a cyborg. They’ve always had a keyboard. There have always been electronic sounds. But for some reason – now – there is more tension between the digital world and the old flesh. 

Shift Work is the Fall’s 13th album, released in 1991. Sometime between 1990 and then singer/speak-singer/man-yelling-at-clouds Mark E Smith fired guitarist Martin Bramah, who joined Mark to help him with his sad break up album, Extricate. Martin was the original guitarist but he and the rest of the band left Mark in a hurry early on and I’m sure it must have been weird when Martin rejoined the band.

“Oh hey Mark, I’ve been in the band since 1976. Remember when everyone else in the band quit?

“Yeah”

“Well, sorry about that. And sorry you got divorced. I’m here to make one record with you. Just one. 

So, not Martin. Who’s in the band now?

  • Mark E. Smith – vocals
  • Craig Scanlon – the scratchy warbly guitar – 
  • Steve Hanley – the chugging bass guitar – 
  • Simon Wolstencroft – drums, keyboards
  • Kenny Brady – fiddle, co-lead vocal on “The Book of Lies” – It looks like Kenny was only with them for a year as well. Then who played violin on the last album? Probably some bongo player’s granny. 

Okay, so I did not know much about this album before listening to it now. I knew “Idiot Joy Showland” and “The Mixer” from some compilations, but this era of the Fall is not my major. I know some of the more techno sounds from the end of the 90s and the markedly post-punk sound of 80s Fall but these transition years are strangers to me. 

Even as the beeps and bloops of programmed drums start to jump into the mix The Fall always sound like The Fall. What strikes me so much about this album now is the emotional spectrum here. There’s rage, but not the kind of personal rage felt on Extricate, we’re back to yelling about labor practices.

And now! Fun Fact: The War Against Intelligence was the original title of the album until the outbreak of the Gulf War convinced Smith to change it to something less controversial. This song sums up the album’s sound very well, it’s a contradiction on its own, sharp violins clash with a rich guitar full of texture. It feels like a titular song.

“The Mixer” is a song that sounds much better in retrospect. The claps haunt me. They are electro castanets on the tips of a digital lobster. I don’t understand this song. Do you put it on to dance at graduate school parties? Is it a banger? It wants to be a banger, no, sure, it is, I don’t know why I hesitated before. 

There’s “Edinburgh Man”,  the sweetest, most cheerful, most positive Fall song I’ve ever heard. It’s not usually their specialty and I must admit at first I resisted again here. Contrast that with the scorching, menacing “A Lot of Wind” which I think must be about roly-poly men on TV slinging propaganda. As Mark calls it the “tragic lantern” – yes. This is the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of this album. This is the sleeper grunge hit I keep coming back to when I want to bang my head.

Wait – no –  “Idiot Joy Showland” is the other snarl-fest that that’s got a bassline to keep your toes tapping and your rage snappin’! I’ve always liked this song, and in the context of the band’s sound of Shift Work the production only sounds even better, like a true continuation of the Fall’s epic rhythm section but now with a lot more chops and somehow more creativity. 

“Rose” reminds returns to feel of Extricate, It’s wistful almost. The hairs on the back of my neck rise for “Sinister Waltz,” which upon closer inspection reveals only doom. I mean, this has gotta be about war and the death machine or something. Right? 

The sound of this album is metallic, industrial and robotic, and is yet very tender and sentimental at times. Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon’s bass and guitar provide that classic Fall off kilter yet driving chug and fills the air with bright sharp guitars. 

So what is the verdict?
This is an album that speaks “I AM DOING JUST FINE NOW THANK YOU VERY MUCH” emphatically at people who ask you if you are doing ok. It is the sound of a man who has lost something and found a new sense of self. Or at least that’s what I’m projecting onto it. It is: Almost Too Listenable! 

Way to go, Mark!

Alex Fleming is a writer, comedian, nerd and game designer living in the LA area. For more information or to file a whistle-blower complaint please visit alexhfleming.com

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If you’d like to buy Shift Work you can pick it up at the link below. 80s Baby may receive a commission. 

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