There’s not a single pleasant word to describe The Fall, whose cranky, oracular frontman — and sole constant member — Mark E. Smith passed away this Wednesday (Jan. 24) at age 60.
Discordant, ramshackle, abrasive, cynical, disorienting, and just plain alienating, most of The Fall’s three-plus decades of output seems designed to rub listeners the wrong way. But it’s also far from bloodless. The Fall tapped into something unnamed and exhilarating, which practically forces you to feel. There’s simply no way to listen neutrally, which is why Smith’s death leaves such a void.
Smith cycled through line-ups relentlessly over the years, and seemed to take a perverse joy in reconfiguring the band’s sound so there’s no definitive Fall song. But if you had to pick one, you could do far worse than “The Classical,” which leads off 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour. The opening riff, all rumbling guitar, bass, and drums, is a fanfare for a track that, as it turns out, never really exists. Almost as soon as it starts, “The Classical” begins falling apart — toying with decay, fraying around the edges, plunging the listener into uncertainty even as it surges forward. The rhythm section vamps ominously and shards of guitar splinter the air. It sounds like all hell is about to break loose.
It does and it doesn’t when Smith jumps in. Less a singer and more a voice, he punches out a string of free-associations (“There is no culture is my brag/ Your taste for bullshit reveals a lust for a home of office”) with a punk’s audible sneer. But Smith is anything but a one-tricky pony: He moves through language with a comedian’s fluency, carefully shaping his rants and harangues; the lyrics, which never quite add up but somehow always make sense, are bleak collages that cut to the quick.
Infamously, one of the first lines in “The Classical” is “This is the the home of the vain/Where are the obligatory n*****s?” It’s an indefensible slur that Smith would cut out of later live versions, even if it’s clearly satirical and not being said in earnest or for simple shock value. But a lyric contemplating its own sheer ugliness, and that of the world, is hardly foreign territory for Smith. When seconds later he turns “hey there fuckface!” into a joyous exhortation, he’s at once delighting in and lamenting his own ugliness and the ugliness of the world.
This all-consuming ugliness is why some people find The Fall unlistenable. As one friend put it, “I already feel hellish and anxious. Why do I need music that makes it worse?” But ugliness, which tells us far more about ourselves than beauty does, suggests total candor. It may even bring us one step closer to redemption. The Fall’s music is harrowing because it’s trying to push ugliness to its breaking point and come out on the other side. It refuses to comfort you because the work is hard and going there requires feeling real dread. But the breakthrough, however fleeting, is exultant. “The Classical” builds to Smith groaning “I’ve never felt better in my life” over an unusually melodic riff. He knows how stupid it sounds and this makes him giddy; it’s not the triumph of the absurd, it’s the absurdity of triumph—of pulling something off that probably should have killed you.
Smith, for all his sarcasm and cynicism, never reads as resigned. He always had fight in him, and real energy. Taken at face value, The Fall’s name suggests Original Sin, exile from the Garden of Eden, certain doom, or civilization’s decline. But the songs point in another direction: The fall in question isn’t an inevitability, it’s a cautionary tale. The Fall may sound like they’re on the verge of collapse or decay but they’re actually pulling themselves back from the edge. Unlike some of their sloppier U.K. forebears, they evinced total control at all times, and nowhere is this truer than with Smith himself. His fuck-ups are tactical and assured, flirtations with disaster that prove the larger point about resolve. This isn’t collapse, it’s recovery, and the second you realize this, The Fall’s music turns on its head. Far from encouraging damnation or dismay, it in fact exudes a strange kind of optimism — a belief in what individuals are free to recognize and then respond to.
Of course, it’s laughable to generalize too much about a band that existed, in one form or another, for over 30 years. And certainly, Mark E. Smith made plenty of music where it’s harder to locate this thread, where mockery takes root and threatens to overwhelm his peculiar brand of altruism. You also really can’t discount the fact that The Fall aren’t great proselytizers — they’re very much an acquired taste and one that correlates with general snobbery. But none of this detracts from what Smith and his band could accomplish at their best, or from the animating principle that gave them life in the first place.
That’s what makes “The Classical” so remarkable. It’s a five-minute manifesto that peers into the abyss, lingers in hell, then drags itself back out. The closing section feels earned in a way that good vibes rarely do in pop music, and immediately gives lie to anyone who will tell you The Fall is all misery and poor fortune. Mark E. Smith, difficult and bizarre as he could be, was ultimately a humanist who believed that existence was awful, but maybe didn’t have to be. He held up a mirror to our world, and to ourselves, and if we didn’t like what we saw, well, that just further proved his point.