"This is the winter of your mind," Mark E. Smith warns about halfway through the band's career and this five-CD retrospective. It does drone on, as any compilation of nearly a hundred songs does. For fans like me, I bought this since I never bought the great 39-track anthology "50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong," only because I had all those songs already, most off their two-dozen-plus studio releases. (As of that date; there's been two more out since.) You can never keep up with the band's output, but this brick box of a monument, matching the buff "Peel Sessions" complete set in its shape, scope, and graphics, complements their knotty, gnomic, catchy, and enigmatically constructed and warblingly delivered sound magnificently.
The cast of characters of the ever-changing band defies summary, but those who assembled this set can be summarized as a subsitute. The booklet's superb in look and content. Singles, posters, and promotional material illustrate the band, if out of any order. I would have liked a "yearbook" line-up of a snap of every member, but this booklet might not have had enough space for over fifty mugshots.
Daryl Easlea's sleevenotes detail each track, and offer an A-to-Z ramble through Fall trivia. Conway Paton's compiled this, and various members are thanked; unlike many of the dozens of earlier cheap-o "greatest hits" packages, this box set satisfies the true fan. It's affordable, too, for anyone wanting a compact shelf of essential (well, this might be arguable with so much to choose from in their discography) songs over five discs.
Any follower of The Fall recognizes the peaks and valleys of this group's sonic long march. On disc one, Nick Watson's mastering brings out the early shambling scratchy (post-)punk send-up well. I heard depth in tracks such as "Rowche Rumble (take 4)," "Hip Priest" and "Leave the Capitol" which freshened these songs. Many of the tunes from the late 70s needed this surgical precision, and the stripping down of extraneous noise from their pioneering work manages to scrape off the low-fi rust without distorting their need for manipulation and their contrary pulse, which defies convention even of New Wave. By the end of this initial disc, the band's shift from guitar-based rant to a more nuanced, unsettling interior terrain of dobut and unease nibbles away at the band's own image as satirical malcontents to reveal a deeper existentialist stance, refusing to compromise with early 80s powder and glitz.
The second disc enters what anyone will call the Brix-period from 1983 through 1989. Fans debate whether this represented the high point of accessibility, or a sell-out. The tracks chosen display the range of the band when they tried to balance a more generously layered, less stringently atonal sound, but in hindsight, by the end of the 80s, their restlessness can be sensed underneath the richer production. The energy dissipates with entries such as the instrumental "Shoulder Pads 1#" and an alternate take "Hit the North" that diffuses that song's punch. "A Day in the Life" covered appears to please completists, but it's no match for "Victoria." I'd counter other songs from the albums "Wonderful" and "This Nation's" and "Frenz" and "Curious" (as I would for "Perverted" on disc one), but they do serve to display the reach of the band's ambitions, if not always their best tunes off that album. There's jitteriness, probably reflecting the "personal and musical differences" that would end the Briz-MES partnership. The sound swirls and defies easy categorization.
Disc three wanders. The refusal to give in to a friendlier approach hardens the band. The first seven years of the 90s enter keyboards more, as the rave and Madchester influences both tickle and irritate the hometown indie elders who by this time are The Fall. I'd have to say that this period of relative retreat into a more insular, hermetic mood provides a pricklier barrier for the newcomer to the band. The songs stick less in the mind, and are less memorable than the Brix tunes. The disc takes forever, it seems, to play. If you want an aural picture of the Nineties in Northern England, and one that defies the age of greed and flash, this might be perfect, but it also might prove a difficult disc to play straight through. This can be, naturally, a selling point for many potential Fall fans. "Noel's Chemical Effluence" or "Arid Al's Dream" appear to capture the pre-millennial dread, but they're again not the tunes you'll be humming in the car. "He-Pep" marks the brief return of Brix, and it's a welcome one. Not sure why the album from which this originates gets only this one track. I'd have jettisoned some of the completist tracks (such as so-so collaborations and sketchy rarities) here for more from this 1997 album. The band's invigorated on this, their highly recommended swan-song LP "Light-User" but the great 80s-90s lineup of Craig Scanlon, Steve Hanley, Karl Burns, Simon Wolstencroft, and/or Dave Bush had already crumbled.
I must add that when the songs that end this disc were first released on "Levitation," I found them often impenetrable. Now, a decade and more on, I judge them among their most significant and freshest work. They leap out at you. It's the one studio record MES produced largely by himself, I believe. The ghost of the club returns, and disorients all in a jungle-punk melange that envelops you in ticky-tacky monolithic beeps. The Badly Drawn Boy even sneaks in on his co-written final track, "Calendar." It's up to you to enter this tilting funhouse.
The fourth disc opens with a great quote from H.P. Lovecraft, even if the spoken-word excerpt entices you more than satisfies you. The end of the 90s up to nearly now takes the band into terrain similar to disc three. What's the difference? Without the core band that had for fifteen-odd years sustained the band at its critical and commercial (such as they were) heights, Smith needed to shuffle his musicians, regarded more as backing him than holding him back. The band's domination under one voice, one mastermind, makes for an idiosyncratic foray through his inner demons and angels. There's a sublime guitar riff answered by a winning chant that breaks open "Touch Sensitive" in its "Dance Mix" into the type of song that should have earned him the top of the charts. It's as if "Levitate" and "Saving Grace" albums combined finally into his moment of pop triumph, silly yet solid. "Shake-Off" and "Two Librans" show that his new crew delivered the meaty chords, electronic interludes, and compact rhythms upon which Smith could use his voice as if a dub master. Better this than a loping faux-reggae "Tom Raggazzi," here if only to show that MES stays unpredictable as ever. "Dr. Bucks' Letter" roams about similar crunching paths, and its inclusion forced me to reconsider this stage along the road.
The disc continues into their current era, full of garage-rock, more keys, and a return to enthusiasm at least with the "Real New" and "Fall Heads" records mid-decade. "Mike's Love Hexagon" gets a cleaner treatment here than its non-"original version," whose murkier mix I favor. But, hear the next track, "Last Commands of Xyralothrep," and the determination for MES and his band to matter again jumps out palpably. Perhaps we can thank in part Elena Poulou, as Mrs. Smith, for this infusion. This force carries the rest of the fourth disc (with the exception of the score-settling ho-hum "Portugal") clearly and convincingly. Get the original CDs too.
The fifth disc gathers live tracks, some half-baked covers, and the usual ephemera that fewer than 50,000 fans demand. Usually, I'm less enamored of The Fall from their concert and demo recordings than I am other musicians. I like what Smith and his mates do in the studio. Primitive to the extreme, many of the live songs from the 70s sound like you'd expect, all treble and shout, no discernible bass or any lower register on many of them. However, by "He Talks," the latter half of these eighteen selections largely work well, with a heftier base and a more intriguing range of melodies and inventions. Not the disc I'd play the most, but not that bad.
I admit that I'm dissuaded by both MES' wariness at "look-back bores" who belabor his utterances, and his dismissal of a glut of graduates who dissect his music. But, what else are we reviewers for? If not fans with a longer memory? And, any liner note scribe who can count the 303 "squelches" in the "Susan vs. Youth Club" remix deserves equal acclaim, not contempt, by any Fall follower. Count me in for decade 4.