Love them or loathe them, The Fall have been making uniquely innovative and challenging music for over three decades now – albeit with iconoclastic front man and arch provocateur Mark E Smith the only common denominator.
Featuring the excellent band members Smith assembled last year, The Fall are currently touring to promote their recently released 28th studio album Your Future Our Clutter. As usual, this is a frustratingly inconsistent mixture of brilliant moments of tangential riffs and hypnotic grooves amid tediously self-indulgent cul de sacs.
But if The Fall’s prolific recording output is uneven, their live performances are utterly unpredictable, mainly due to their alternately inspiring and infuriating eccentric leader. A few weeks ago Smith walked off-stage after only six songs at an Edinburgh gig – with his totally disinterested and unengaged performance it’s a pity he didn’t do the same thing at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Of course the usual ‘Great to be here’ platitudes were not expected but Smith made virtually no acknowledgement of the audience’s presence, as he turned his back on them while he ambled around the stage aimlessly messing with microphones and fiddling with knobs on the amplifiers, and sometimes walking off completely as if he’d lost the plot. Taking incoherence to a new level, his already obscure lyrics were inaudible as he failed to project the words amidst much ranting and raving.
To be fair, Smith did get his act together to some extent; the last quarter of the 70-minute set had more focus. But most of the gig felt like a revved up car without a driver. That was a pity because the band sounded really sharp, with Smith’s synth-playing wife Elena Poulou joined by Pete Greenway on guitar, Dave Spurr on bass and the outstanding Keiron Melling on drums.
Not surprisingly, the set list was mainly made up of songs from the new album, though for some reason Mexico Wax Solvent – one of the most interesting tracks – was the only one not played. All the other material came from recent albums, with nothing from before 2003.
Kicking off with O.F.Y.C. Showcase, there was a real sense of anticipation as the dynamic drum intro led into an unsettling but compelling harangue, in which the cryptic lyrics “Your future our clutter” seem interchangeable with “Our future your clutter”. But the tiresomely repetitive Over! Over! from 2007 album Reformation Post T.L.C. outstayed its welcome, followed by Cowboy George, a spaghetti western/Ennio Morricone-style number on acid, madly galloping along without a rider. Opening with a glam stomp, Bury Pts 1 + 3 appears to be a personal diatribe by Smith against Bury council.
While Smith left the stage to recover, Poulou took lead vocals for I’ve Been Duped from 2008 album Imperial Wax Solvent. With her husband taking over again, Y.F.O.C. Slippy Floor seemed to go on and on without getting anywhere, though Wolf Kidulte Man, featuring wolf-like howls and heavy rock chords, made more of an impact. After Funnel Of Love, a botched cover of the great Wanda Jackson rockabilly song, Smith – perhaps symbolically – handed the microphone over during Reformation to fans at the front of the audience to make their own noise.
The single encore, Theme From Sparta FC (used as BBC’s Final Score theme music), may have been a nod to popular appeal and Smith actually said a hurried thank you before heading off for a drink. The cult anti-hero seems more fallen idol these days, but he could well surprise us again.