Fat White Family
Songs for Our Mothers
At some point in the wake of their 2013 debut album Champagne Holocaust, somebody accused Fat White Family of being fascists. Far for attempting any kind of ham-fisted damage control, the Brixton band have now returned as combat-wearing skinheads with an album that includes songs titled ‘Duce’, ‘Lebensraum’ and ‘Goodbye Goebbels’.
Fat White Family probably aren’t fascists. Rather they’re provocateurs in an age when so many of their contemporary rock acts have learned the virtues of playing it safe. Songs for Our Mothers is not a record most people would be particularly proud to bring home to their mothers. It’s a voyeuristic dive into the depths of human depravity. Fat White Family conjure up a deeply atmospheric record that quickly closes in and becomes more than a little claustrophobic.
The band already have a reputation for uproarious, hedonistic gigs involving nudity and physical violence, but this seems to be mostly a by-product of the energy contained within the music, rather than the other way around. Not unlike The Birthday Party, there’s a violent drive inherent in the music itself that has conjured up a sense of danger about the Fat White Family.
Songs for Our Mothers channels this sense of encroaching danger into a record that, on a first listen, verges on disarmingly saccharine. Vocalist Lias Saoudi’s distinctive foghorn-like vocal drone is mostly laid aside this time around in favour of a soft – almost whispered at times – singing voice. Amid the familiar fuzz of droning guitars, the band sample unsettlingly catchy disco keyboards, honeyed country riffs, and hymnal organs.
But this vibe is surface stuff, below which lurks a ton of pent up misery. The aforementioned fascist imagery is joined by a song about a serial killer (‘When Shipman Decides’) and a track called ‘Love is the Crack’ (the full chorus is in fact, “Love is the crack… of somebody else’s whip”, which deflects the provocative title a bit, but with its floating hazy drone sound, it still sounds a lot like a song about drugs). The poppiest song on the record, ‘Hits Hits Hits’, attempts to pick apart the abusive relationship of Ike and Tina Turner, rendering the title as a brutally offensive pun that, at least on the surface, appears to make light of domestic abuse. This brutality is just another layer, and there’s yet more lurking underneath.
If Fat White Family’s actual worldview is anywhere on Songs for Our Mothers, it’s ‘Tinfoil Deathstar’. The track starts out as spectral, ska-infused jam at a heroin party, before abruptly cutting to a spoken word description of austerity victim David Clapson, as he (or his ghost perhaps?) observes this scene through a window. Here, at last, is a clue to what Fat White Family are really all about. Suddenly the album’s gruesome depths and unrelentingly bleak world view becomes less about an immature fascination with Nazis and serial killers, and more of an attempt to write the grim reality of the world. This is the voice of the squeezed out working class in a London that’s being transformed into a haven for the super-rich. It’s the voice of independent musicians in an industry where good hair and a lot of label investment in PR gets you on the cover of NME.
In these terms, the rage that bristles below the surface of pretty much the entirety of this album is a lot more justifiable. The shock value is serving a larger purpose, rather than being the end in itself.
All these elements come to a head on lead single ‘Whitest Boy on the Beach’. The tune is floaty yet dense, with softly sung and simplistic lyrics that are repeated until the words start to lose all meaning (a technique learned from The Fall, for sure). Thus a song about being a pale kid on a beach adopts a feverish intensity that could be rage at the establishment, at racism, at classism, or towards just about anything. Or even nothing at all. Fat White Family aren’t condescending to the lowest common denominator to sell records, and they aren’t gonna let the fear of pissing people off hold them back from expressing things their way.
With so many of the heroes of rock passing away lately, and with rock music firmly entrenched in a conservative, self-mythologised version of its own past (just look at the knee-jerk reaction to the mere suggestion that Kanye might record some Bowie covers), it’s not difficult to see the death of the genre on the horizon. Fat White Family aren’t going to change that. Instead they’ve released the scuzzy, offensive, and wildly inappropriate album to soundtrack the funeral. Nothing on this album has any real potential of being played on a greatest hits stadium tour 30 years down the line. This is rock music coming full circle, dying as it was born – as raw anthems by pissed off misfits played loud and distorted.
And what better way to go out than closing track ‘Goodbye Goebbels’. This tender love-balled is probably the most sentimental thing Fat White Family have ever written, and is sung from the point of view of Adolf Hitler in the bunker in 1945 as he reminisces on his failed dreams for a better world to Joseph Goebbels before the pair commit suicide. Tonally it should be all over the place, but the result is an oddly endearing ode to lost ambition and failure. It’s almost like Fat White Family have failed already and are mourning their own demise. “Silence is sacred,” moans Saoudi (heavily reverbed for that authentic bomb shelter echo). If rock is dead, there aren’t many better death songs than this one.
NINE / TEN
Fat White Family play Whelan’s, Dublin on February 23 and The Limelight, Belfast on February 25.