Perfect Sound Forever

The Fall Levitate

Paul Docherty
(May 1998)

In a music-industry where sex sells and a truckload of sugar helps the melody go down, Mark E. Smith once again provides the antidote to post-industrial malaise with the unsweetened and sexless Levitate, the 28th studio album from The Fall. Smith, the snarling, drawling art-punk troll, has made a career of driving that antidote down the throat of the audience, and with Levitate delivers the most eclectic, exciting and challenging dose since The Infotainment Scan. Levitate represents the culmination of a decade of the subtle shift in The Fall's musical dynamic, away from the punk-derived guitar toward electronic dance-inspired rhythms. This album, seen as a whole, finds a new balance, consolidating the old and the new, drawing on the strength found in the wealth of their musical history while serving as a foretaste of The Fall to come.

At every turn, The Fall confounds the listener by utilizing popular music forms and twisting them in unexpected directions, or by simply pounding them into tiny pieces and presenting to us with what remains. The album opens with two excellent examples of the former: the dance-ballad "Ten Houses Of Eve" and the churning bass and electronics of "Masquerade."

"Ten Houses" hypnotizes with an insistent dance beat and punctuating bass line as Smith confronts his audience, almost mocking, with their preconceived ideas of womanhood ("dare you enter the ten houses of Eve?"). The haranguing ends abruptly as the rhythm drops into the wash of a delicate keyboard line that caresses and reassures, Smith's lamenting of alienation catching the listener off guard ("if only the shards /would relocate/back into place") before the beat reasserts itself and the grilling begins again. "Ten Houses" sounds a note of introspection in the midst of arrogant inquisition on the part of Smith, an unexpected juxtaposition that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

"Masquerade" continues the driving energy of the first track, with chopping guitar and assertive electronic rhythm serving as the vehicle for Smith's oblique references to materialism and cutthroat consumerism, themes that recur throughout the album. Before the track can become monotonous, Smith's mumbling voice is dropped into the mix front-and-center, murmuring conspiratorially as the song retreats into the background. With Smith in the producer's chair, this and many other tracks throughout the album are prevented from sounding too glossy by his blunt editing and overdubbing, adding the essential broken glass into the ice-cream of comfortable studio production.

The third track shines as an example of The Fall destroying musical form in the pursuit of something more. A dense, cacophonous soup stirred with the wooden spoon of Smith's obtuse and unintelligible lyric, "Hurricane Edward" is an experimental three-part collision of drums, bass and queasy guitar, with Smith's rambling slur as counterpoint. Like a blueprint of chaos, "Hurricane" shrieks and swoops as the listener is caught in the maelstrom of Smith's rancor (Edward being the 'E' in Mark E. Smith) and accelerated into the album's other finest moment, a cover of Bob McFadden & Dor's "I'm a Mummy." Rendered here with an irresistible surf/garage simplicity that reiterates The Fall's enduring trait of refreshingly obscure covers, Smith comically relates alienation of cartoon dimensions with an unforgettable and uncontrollably infectious hook.

Rich with contradiction, the album twists and turns through mood, texture and emotion. "The Quartet of Doc Shanley" toys with his perceived image of rambling lunatic as he babbles, utterly incomprehensibly, over a grinding backdrop of drums and keyboard. Superimposed are the voices of other band members reciting "if you, like me, are a complete and utter pranny, then you'll know what I mean when I say 'recipe.'" The line is a reference by Smith to the working title to the album, Recipe For Fascism, and perhaps a stab at the ardent fans who rushed out to grab the limited edition of the album that featured the track of the same name. As a song, "Quartet" represents a complex interaction with the audience, the lyrics at the same time relating directly to the listener, indulging in a little self-deprecation and yet mocking those who read into the words presented to them. In a moment of self-awareness, Smith perceives something about himself he finds distasteful, and then spits it into the face of his audience, his own guilt making the jibe too light-hearted to be contemptuous.

The all-out aural assault of "4 Inch" stands as a tribute to Smith's continued flirting with the dance-music genre. "Inch" was originally written with D.O.S.E., the production duo that Smith furnished with vocals for the track "Plug Myself In" (referred to more directly later in the live portion of "Everybody but Myself"). This dense cut-up of drum loops and clipped guitar samples contrasts the sparse and muted "Jap Kid" that follows, the instrumental prelude to Smith's interpretation of Nazim Hikmet's classic Hiroshima poem, "I Come and Stand at Every Door" that follows later. Smith articulates his ironic distaste at current dance-music trends with his deadpan cover of Hank Mizel's "Jungle Rock", and relates an allegedly true story of an assault upon his person outside a nightclub in "Ol' Gang." With solid bass and keyboard riffs, "Ol' Gang" is an uncompromising and welcome return to the sound they established over a decade earlier.

The album ends with the oddly poignant "Everybody but Myself," a studio track spliced with a live recording of Smith's concert tradition of handing the microphone into the drunken crowd as they freestyle Fall lyrics ("Do me a favor, cut your lip and shut up!"). With Smith conspicuously absent from this first part of the track, the flavor of melancholy is heightened by his reciting the title over and over as the forlorn keyboard line draws the song, and the album, to its close.

But it's the album's title track that drives home the message. In his diatribe against trials of the everyday and the absurdity of materialism, Smith invites us to rise above with his unsweetened delivery of the anthem "Come Levitate with me." Smith has always sought for more, always striven for better while spurning mainstream approval and the comfortable success that could well have brought. In a sea of commercial dross and homogenous nonsense, Smith proves his philosophy. Though this is not the best Fall album, through subtle wit and irrepressible energy Levitate rises above the chart chaff and shines as an example of the Fall at their best.

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