The Fall is a paradox, remarkable as much for its consistency—the British band has released an album every year or two for more than three decades, dating all the way back to 1979's Live at the Witch Trials—as for its wide-ranging sonic unpredictability. From taut, amphetamine-charged postpunk funk to New Wave pop with commercial aspirations, from obtuse electronic experiments to the gruff kind of garage rock the band has settled into in the last decade, the Fall has always wandered wherever its frontman and leader Mark E. Smith has led. No two albums are ever the same, but the Fall never sounds like any other band. You can count on a new Fall album every 18 months. You can count on it sounding different than the ones that came before it. And you can count on it sounding unmistakably like the Fall. "Always different, always the same," as BBC DJ John Peel, the band's most loyal and enthusiastic supporter, famously remarked.
Part of the reason for the band's aesthetic restlessness is that it's hardly a band in the usual sense—more than 50 musicians have accompanied Smith during the Fall's existence. (Music journalist Dave Simpson has even written a book, The Fallen: Life in and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group, about the band's former members, and why they left or were kicked out.) Smith, as the unchanging face and voice of the band over all those years, is generally identified as the artistic director of the group, and there's some truth to that. His perplexing, beguiling, infuriating persona—equally bookish and loutish, he's a working-class snob, an art-school dropout and devoted Manchester City soccer fan, a drunken autodidact fueled by contempt and self-pity—is inseparable from his band's music.
But the musicians behind Smith have contributed mightily to the Fall's legacy. It's no coincidence that the band's masterful run in the 1980s, from Grotesque: After the Gramme to This Nation's Saving Grace, featured some combination of Karl Burns, Marc Riley, Steve Hanley, Craig Scanlon, and Brix Smith—the classic lineup(s) most closely associated with the band by hardcore fans. The Fall released great material before and after those musicians came and went, but the band was simply unassailable between 1980 and 1985; that period contains the group's handful of best albums and also represents one of the most astounding sustained runs of creativity and energy by a rock band ever.
That period was good enough that it's reasonable to wonder what to do with the rest of the Fall's imposing catalog. How many albums does even the most devoted fan need? Is second-rate Fall music still good enough? How long do I need to keep buying Fall albums that I never listen to after the first few weeks?
Which brings us to Re-Mit (Cherry Red), the band's latest disc, released in May. It's the fourth album in a row to feature the same lineup: Smith; his wife, Elena Poulou, on keyboards; and guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling. (No previous Fall lineup had ever recorded more than two albums together.) The first two of those, 2008's Imperial Wax Solvent and 2010's Your Future Our Clutter, continued a strong run of tough, relatively straightforward garage/krautrock that had started way back with 2000's The Unutterable—what has seemed like one of the more impressive stretches of the Fall's career.
But the clunky, uninspired meandering on 2011's Ersatz GB and now Re-Mit seem like the end of that road. On the new album, the band sounds competent but uninspired. Straightforward has become anonymous; digressions like "Pre-MDMA Years" and "Jetplane" sound like parodies of Mark E. Smith at his worst. A pair of notable songs—the surfy shout-along "Sir William Wray" and the nervy closing track "Loadstones"—would fit among the best of the recent Fall albums, but the band otherwise spends too much time playing sideways, giving up forward momentum to follow Smith down detours that don't pay off, like the murky, directionless "Hittite Man."
The Fall has seemed like it was finished more than once. It's been part of the band's predictable unpredictability that really bad albums are sometimes followed by good ones; it's certainly never a good idea to start betting against Mark E. Smith. But he's 56 now, and can't have too many comebacks left in him.