Week Twenty Four: Shift-Work.
Shift-Work came out in 1991, the year punk broke, the year Nevermind dropped, the year riot grrrl got started. Devo, Talk Talk, Gorilla Biscuits, The Replacements, and Talking Heads all split. Pearl Jam, Cypress Hill, Nation Of Ulysses, Tupac, Richard D James, and the Smashing Pumpkins all put out their first records, whilst Fugazi were on full-length number three (or two, depending on if you count 13 Songs, y’know?) and Sonic Youth were riding on the high of Goo, their first major label record. 1991 is, oh god, the year Reel Big Fish formed. Emperor formed that year, too, kicking off the second wave of Black Metal. I never thought I’d get to reference Reel Big Fish and Emperor in the same paragraph. But I mention all of this fairly disparate stuff to highlight the fact that 1991 was a fucking BIG year for music. So much hugely influential and important stuff was going on, a lot of scenes finding their voice, a lot of bands hitting their stride, a lot of things unexpectedly hitting the mainstream. A lot was changing. But what were The Fall doing, I wonder, with bated breath.
The Fall have always been a constant throughout any cultural turbulence. Although always popular with John Peel and various other critics, their chart performances were never really anything to shout about, and they always just did their own thing, albeit within a channel that has its limits. Which is cool – you could never accuse The Fall of selling out. I was very much expecting them to keep plugging away in the same vein throughout the 90s, but this period of musical unrest captured them too – Extricate picked up on the electronic Madchester vibes of the very end of the 80s, and I think it was the first time when their music progression didn’t feel entirely natural. Like they were going for a certain sound, actively pursuing it, instead of just settling in to the sound that felt most comfortable at the time.
They lost two members during the Extricate tour, including their keyboard player, making this a largely four-piece-Fall effort. I was actually hoping for some stripped back returns to Fall-basics, but with a few of the more listenable tendencies they’d learned along the way – this was their highest charting effort at that point, after all. But, no, Shift-Work builds on Extricate’s Happy Mondays-leanings and, relatively speaking, obviously, is just poppy as hell. Edinburgh Man is their breakaway pop hit, and this is essentially the Fall’s summer record. It’s an odd experience and I’m not sure if it totally works. I mean, it fit in kind of nicely with this week’s amazing weather, but Great Cynics fit in so much better, so Shift-Work didn’t really get played a whole lot in the situations that would have suited it best.
Although I did say nothing really grabbed me on Extricate, the record was, as a whole, a fairly engaging listen. Shift-Work is… less so. This might be the first time I’ve just totally zoned out on a Fall album and completely forgotten what I was listening to as it sunk in to the background. There’s better moments, yeah, and worse moments too, but in general? It’s a bit of a haze. I guess that actually just means it’s one of their most listenable yet – it’s not that weird, at all, and it sorely lacks the edge of their best work. Obviously in some ways I’m happy that The Fall seem to be well past making records that are 20-70% fucking awful at this point because it means I’m angry less of the time, but at least that was a bit more interesting, you know? I guess The Fall just can’t win. Or I can’t win. Or neither of us.
So, yeah. To bring it full circle, The Fall’s contribution to the big, important year of 1991 feels like a fairly minimal one, and they may have ridden it more than contributed to it - their highest chart position yet may have had something to do with both the combination of the ever-increasing interest in underground alternative/indie/punk music, and borrowing from the current mainstream Madchester buzz. Sure, there’s stuff on Shift-Work that sounds like a blueprint for a lot of alt-pop music that would come out in the 90s (Rose in particular. Probably the best on the record, too), but unlike the Pixies and Pavement, they’d probably have got their without The Fall’s input, and it feels like they’re bowing to other influences rather than being the outlandish influence that the outsiders look to for inspiration.
It feels like The Fall are having a bit of an identity crisis through one of my favourite periods for music, like they’re just mucking around making tolerable music, and not really giving it their all anymore. With that in mind, Shift-Work is an apt title - The Fall, and the act of making Fall records, as I’ve mentioned in the past, has always seemed like more of a job to Mark E. Smith rather than a creative output. It feels, at this point, like he needs a holiday.