This article first appeared in Viceland.com
Somehow I missed this review in the NY Times of The Fall’s new album. The article is titled “Mr. Smith Shows His Staying Power,” and it came out a couple of weeks ago.
I wish I hadn’t read it. Not now, not then. And now that I have read it, I can’t focus, which is a problem for me because I’m overwhelmed with work and it’s 4 AM and I have deadlines.
How do I describe what’s wrong with this article, when literally everything is wrong with it? It shouldn’t matter, I know—it’s “just a harmless album review” I tell myself. One would expect the Times to get The Fall wrong, and that would be fine too. But I never thought they’d find a Gen-X culture critic who carried the Thomas Friedman gene. I hadn’t even heard of this guy Ben Ratliff before, and the few people who answered my desperate late-night emails had never heard of him either.
Now I’ll never forget him—Hell, they’ll find Ben Ratliff’s toxic residue in my fossilized remains millions of years from now, and they’ll probably go:
“Looks like another one—my god, it appears as though this Ben Ratliff wiped out every life form on earth!”
“Everything but the fungus kingdom, sir. Somehow, fungus thrived after The Ben Ratliff Event.”
By his own account, Ben Ratliff was a college radio DJ back in the 1980s. That should set off alarms to anyone who was alive in the 1980s—there was a certain type of college-radio DJ pedant who became dominant as the decade went on, the type who always bragged about how their favorite artists are great because “they don’t take themselves too seriously.” I never understood why that was supposed to matter so much, but it did—and everything went the way of They Might Be Giants, and that was the last of that scene I remember.
Welp, Ratliff’s brought it all back to me now. His review of the new Fall album starts out harmlessly enough describing The Fall’s sound with a lot of fancy high-diction footwork. My first thought was, “Poor Ratliff’s working up a serious sweat trying to make himself look smart—go easy on the elbow grease son, you’ll hurt yourself!” Which is understandable—the average Times subscriber probably equates high diction with genius, gotta please the customer, etc.
It wasn’t until I started paying more attention further down the article that I sensed an oddly vindictive tone underneath all the rhetoric of detachment, and I couldn’t figure out why. He wants readers to know that no one cares about The Fall except for some crusty dead-enders who subscribe to The Guardian, whereas in our country the band is “noticed, if at all, for still being around.”
The bitchy insults seemed strange and out of place in the review. And then Ratliff makes a hilarious confession: When he was a college radio DJ, he didn’t get The Fall at all, but he knew he was supposed to think they mattered so he bought one of their albums, Perverted By Language, hated it, and put it in the attic. Then, 25 years after he bought that Fall album, Ratliff finally cried out, “Oh, I get it! Wow, this is good!”
The Fall’s latest song “Bury! Pts 2 + 4″…Warning: The words sung by Mr. Smith are lyrics and not poetry. Anyone trying to find meaning in them can expect a letter from Mr. Ratliff’s attorney.
And now he’s not just a fan, he’s the world’s leading expert on The Fall.
First of all, it’s a problem if it takes 25 years to get a rock album—that’s a worrying sign, dude. But the funniest part is that it wasn’t even the music or Mark E Smith’s lyrical universe that drew him in. Nope, you won’t believe what it took 25 years for Ratliff to get, so I’ll let him tell you:
“But not long ago Perverted by Language, a record I’d bought when it came out in 1983 and forgotten about, drew me in: first with its title — think about it for a minute — then with its sounds.”
That’s right: It took him 25 years to grasp the meaning of the album’s title. (I love that parenthetical aside, it’s so serious: “think about it for a minute.” H’m…yeah…h’m…hey…hey wait a doggone cotton-pickin minute. “Perverted By Language”–why, that means something! Hold on while I get my chin scratcher warmed up, I have a feeling these Fall fellas are onto something big ‘n’ smart. “Perverted By Language” he says, h’m? This Mark Smith character is tellin’ us som’thin’ bout language, by gum…that, uh, language…perverts us. Makes us perverted, in a language-y sorta way. Yessirree, this whole “language” thing, it’s big stuff, that’s what they’re sayin’ in the universities at least. You can see how a feller’d be perverted by language, cuz language is power. But language is unstable, meaning-wise that is. You got your signifier, see? And you got your signified, see? And that’s how you got your unstable meaning–that whole thing. Oh sure, there’s all sorts of books on this, smart people have a lot of things to say about this whole language thing. You’ve got your Sassures here and your Derridas there–folks, I’m talkin’ the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle.)
For the record, Perverted By Language is probably the weakest album title in the Fall’s long history, precisely because it pandered to liberal arts geeks who made up The Fall’s cult core following. But whatever, they needed money. That makes sense–and it worked, although in some cases it took a while.
“Winston Churchill had a speech imp-p-p-pediment/And look what he did/He razed half of London/And the Dutch are weeping”
So 25 years later, Ben Ratliff’s finally figured out that he screwed up and missed the Velvet Underground of his time. If you understand the vanity of a college radio DJ, you’ll understand that Ratliff will never live that down, or forgive The Fall for making an ass out of him.
To show that he “gets it” in a way that no one has ever “got it” before him, Ratliff claims to have cracked the Big Mystery about The Fall’s success and talent. The mystery is this: How is it that Mark E. Smith’s The Fall, alone among all bands in rock history and certainly among his early-punk peers, is still putting out stunning songs today, after 28 albums and 30 years? Every other band, even the really great ones, have 5 good years at best, maybe 10 in a few cases—but 30 years? How does he put out an album per year on average with Prussian consistency, albums that even rank up with some of the better early material–when every other band’s output slows down radically? What’s the secret to MES’s creative fecundity?
Ratliff’s got the answer; he’s cracked the code. The secret to Mark E. Smith’s fecundity is that there’s no secret. Yup, turns out The Fall’s lyrics have no meaning at all. According to Ratliff, what makes Smith’s lyrics so interesting is that they’re never “about” anything. There’s nothing to figure out:
“Fall songs aren’t necessarily about anything specific. Proper names flash by, places, initials, numbers, sometimes having to do with the Manchester area, where Mr. Smith has spent nearly his entire life. Sometimes, as in ‘O.F.Y.C. Showcase,’ he seems to be improvising, or snatching phrases from different places. Elsewhere, as in another new song, ‘Mexico Wax Solvent,’ the lyrics sound like a concentrated block of text.”
Of course, there’s a conflict-of-interest here in his interpretation, because if it’s true that Smith’s lyrics have “no meaning” as he argues, then that makes everyone else the dumbshit, and it makes him the real genius for getting it—and provides the perfect excuse for that ol’ 25-years-to-get-an-album-cover problem. So not only are MES’s lyrics just meaningless random fragments thrown together with absolutely nothing of substance, but—and here’s the real zinger to all the highbrow liberal arts Fall fans—he declares the lyrics may look like poetry, but they aren’t.
Here’s how Ratliff makes his argument:
“His words look from a distance like poetry, but aren’t really. They’re meant only for their performed context, and to be pronounced in his voice.”
Ratliff’s definition of poetry essentially comes down to this: “Poetry is verse which was not meant to be performed; that which is meant to be performed, is not poetry.” You writing that down, kids? Somehow I missed that definition in Aristotle’s Poetics, but hey, things have changed, paradigm shifts, etc. Someone should tell every other culture where poetry is meant to be performed that if it’s performed, it’s not poetry. Maybe the WTO should get it on it. They could start their crackdown in Russia, where poetry is still a popular form of expression, and is often designed to be performed as much or more than read (in the 60s and 70s poetry readings drew stadium crowds). They’re going to have to do something about that. Boy will they be disappointed when they learn that all these years, they’ve just been reading lyrics, not poetry. And it will really matter to them the way it matters to Ratliff—the category comes first, after all!
Categories and rules: like the rule that Mark E. Smith’s lyrics are “meant only to be performed”? That has to be the single silliest statement by a critic that I’ve ever read. What happens to Mark E. Smith’s lyrics when they’re not performed? Do they evaporate? Do the meaning-molecules break apart once exposed to the printed “context”? The categories seem more than just petty pedantics—maybe there should be a disclaimer at the bottom of every communication containing a Fall lyric.
This fixation on these big categories and classifications, as if it’s The Consensus itself speaking through Ratliff here, is where you can really see the Thomas Friedman genes starting to show: that combination dumb’n’dull thinking expressed with so much confidence, it’s demoralizing to see it in print and makes you want to give up. Even the worst brain-leeches like my old friend Chuck Klosterman can’t compete with this guy.
But Ratliffe is just setting everything up for the coup de grace—even the admissions of The Fall’s greatness for 30 straight years, is just part of the build-up to the Big Zinger he’s hiding behind his back—and suddenly, all that fecundity is thrown right back at The Fall: “Sorry to say, but in American terms, this is a Grateful Dead situation.”
Oo, that’s gotta hoit!
Well, yeah, maybe. Depends. If you don’t like the Fall, it might be a good excuse you can tell yourself—the ol’ “Grateful Dead of [GENRE]” insult that was also big back in the 80s. The analogy doesn’t hold, of course—the Dead couldn’t cut a decent studio album if their lives depended on it, so they finally gave up and became a non-stop touring band with little new material after the first decade or so, whereas the Fall is all about work ethic in the studio, putting out fresh material like clockwork. The Dead is about “organic” drugs; whereas Mark E Smith is “one of the 2 percent of the population meant for speed,” as he puts it.
But that’s just nitpicking—who cares if the analogy doesn’t hold. Did Thomas Friedman care? Did the Germans care when they bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! The clumsier and dumber the analogy, the more effective it is, so long as it’s accompanied by pure self-confidence. So “the world is flat”. Globalization puts a “golden arches straightjacket” on you. The Fall has a “Grateful Dead Situation”. And it took Ben Ratliff 25 years to understand an album title.
In conclusion, Ben Ratliff is an idiot.
PS: It’s just a shame that the editors can’t move a fool like him to a beat he’s more capable of handling–like Iran’s alleged nuclear warhead program, for example. The Times must be itching to get a new Judy Miller or Michael Gordon pumping that threat up, and I gotta hunch this Ben Ratliff is the guy for the job. There are plenty of disasters just waiting to be misreported—this guy’s got a future, folks. So get him out, please, just get Ben Ratliff the fuck out of our little culture ghetto.
This article first appeared in Viceland.com
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