I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I think Mark E. Smith is an out-and-out musical genius, and it has been his innate intelligence and iron leadership that have, by force of will alone, kept his band The Fall alive and relevant for over 35 years and counting. A working-class bloke who is unusually well-read, his lyrics are sprinkled with literary references to William Blake, Christopher Marlowe and H.P. Lovecraft (among many others), and refer to historical events including the Protestant Reformation and the death of Pope John Paul I. And mixed in with these literary allusions are heaping dollops of his wicked and bitter, yet funny and thought-provoking sense of humor. Here are but a few of my favorite Fall lyrics:
- "The Wehrmacht never got in here . . . but it took us six years" (from "Middle Mass")He's no musician, and he doesn't possess what would remotely be described as a golden set of pipes. But for most of his career, Smith has wisely surrounded himself with a superb and ever-rotating group of instrumentalists, musos who are not only very good at what they do, but who also are able to translate Smith's sometimes dense and abstract vision and words into music that sounds like nothing else currently out there. That's another attribute of The Fall that doesn't get discussed enough - for nearly four decades, Smith has been able to constantly change his band's musical style, without following the current trend du jour (be it punk, New Wave, alternative, Madchester, grunge, etc.) and without pandering to his audience. And yet in every iteration, with every new Fall lineup, each album and every song produced over the years is immediately recognizable as being by "The Fall". There's a lot of truth in what DJ John Peel once said: "The Fall are always different, always the same."
- "You're a walking tower of Adidas crap at a cobblers four times a month" (from "Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun")
- "I was very let down with the budget/I was expecting a one million quid handout/I was very disappointed/It was the government's fault" (from "Dog Is Life/Jerusalem")
. . . Which is why I have problems with this album, his second spoken-word solo release (the first being 1998's The Post Nearly
Here's the bottom line: I'm a HUGE Fall fan, and I really, really, REALLY wanted to like this album. But in the end, Pander! Panda! Panzer! comes off as forty-plus minutes of non-stop ravings from a deranged old man. It makes me sad to say that, since it's been my experience that Mark E. Smith has rarely made a misstep in his career. But in my opinion, this is one of them. If you're going to issue what essentially is an artistic conceit, at the very least make it somewhat accessible to the audience you're trying to reach. I know that that's not Smith's style, but still . . .
As such, I can't recommend this disc . . . even the most rabid Fall fan will be hard-pressed to get through it all. There are some nuggets of gold encased in his long stream of words (hence the saying, 'Amidst madness, wisdom lies therein') - good luck holding out long enough to hear them.
However, if you're looking to test your endurance, here you are: For your consideration, Mark E. Smith's Pander! Panda! Panzer!, released on Action Records in 2002. Enjoy (if you can), and as always, let me know what you think.
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