Mark E. Smith, who died Jan. 24, seemed somewhat immortal in a way that few artists can. As frontman of The Fall, in his 40-year career, Smith and his band released some 30 studio albums and just as many live albums, compilations, and collections of rarities.
Despite his ailing health, Smith sounds as youthful on The Fall’s last album, New Facts Emerge, as he did at any point in his inimitable career. Smith’s youthful intensity and prolific work ethic defined The Fall, almost more so than the music itself. Sure, The Fall are far from the only band to release a lot of albums. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard released 5 albums in 2017 alone; Gucci Mane somehow managed to export a seemingly endless supply of vocal tracks during his 2016 prison stint. What differentiates The Fall from their equally industrious peers, however, is the fact that they didn’t merely release a lot of good albums, but that their albums manage to sound, in the words of John Peel, “always different, but always the same.”
With a voice as distinct as Smith’s, it was impossible for the band to cut a record and not have it sound like The Fall. While the band’s identity is impossible to hide from those who know them, they don’t ever sound like The Fall of last year.
Smith was to The Fall what Jeff Tweedy is to Wilco, or Nick Cave is to the Bad Seeds. The Fall were essentially a collaborative solo project, a vehicle for presenting Smith’s caustic lyrics and madcap ideas in likely a more palatable format than what the vocalist could have made on his own.
The Fall are less of a band and more of an ever-shifting collective. While its nucleus has remained intact, the group has employed 66 members other than Smith throughout its lengthy existence. This influx of new ideas and members, coupled with Smith’s endless lyrical creativity, kept The Fall on their lively trajectory.
Despite the fast turnover rate of their members, Smith’s lyrics and outlook rarely wavered. To their end, The Fall were always unpredictable, always funny, and always very British. Take my favorite Smith lyric, from the song, “Frightened,” featured on their first proper album, Live at the Witch Trials. In a thick Mancunian accent, Smith sing-songs, “I’m better than them, and I think I’m the best.” Smith never reveals to whom the “them” refers, but it is his attitude here that counts. Such a proclamation is brazen from such an untested artist, especially when one considers The Fall’s contemporaries. Smith belongs to one of the most legendary generations in recent music history, a golden age that includes the Talking Heads, The Cure, and Joy Division. Despite the band’s legendarily wreckless antics, such as re-arranging songs so as to make them purposefully incomprehensible, arriving on stage too intoxicated to perform, and shutting the sound off on various instruments mid-concert, The Fall somehow managed to outlive their more successful counterparts.
The Fall’s was not a fat, content old age. The band never lost their edge, remaining the cocky innovators they were at their inception—angry, funny, and cynical right up to the very end. In that sense, Mark E. Smith and The Fall truly were better than the others, and quite possibly the best band in their class.