The Future of the Left that released their third album The Plot Against Common Sense last month is a rather different beast than the one that surfaced with their last full-length album, Travels With Myself and Another, in 2009. Founding member and guitarist Kelson Mathias announced his departure from the band in 2010, and after some temporary members came and went FOTL emerged late in 2010 as a quartet, with Million Dead alumnus Julia Ruzicka on bass and keys and Jimmy Watkins, also of Strange News From Another Star, on guitar. What hasn’t changed, of course, is Andy “Falco” Falkous’s skill as a lyricist and frontman. The person who penned such mclusky classics as “Collagen Rock”, “Alan is a Cowboy Killer” and “Without MSG I Am Nothing” has matured after more than 10 years into…well, still a really angry dude. This is true, but he has become more articulate and adept at incorporating the things that infuriate him into songs with a dark sense of humour instead of into vaguely angry and outright ridiculous songs. Not that I don’t adore mclusky, but FOTL is a different matter entirely, as it should be.
Practically foaming at the mouth with twisted, snarled anger right out of the gate, “Sheena Is a T-Shirt Salesman” sees FOTL pass judgement on multinational chain stores like H&M that co-opt and appropriate the logos and imagery of punk bands in order to sell t-shirts. They also take a stab at the hyper-sexualized adverts used to move those t-shirts with lines like “But Sheena is a clever girl/She paid for our equipment with her tits/She tore off her t-shirt/Dumb is the new black.” The assumed artistic and philosophical purity of The Ramones and others of their ilk is contrasted starkly with the now-commonplace landscape of corporate greed, and the effect is jarring. This contrast is brought home by the music – a driving bassline anchors a squall of noise, topped off by Falco’s signature scream and sneer. There’s a little bridge squeezed into this roar that repeats “Autistic autistic autistic radio/Artistic license” while the synths are given a little breathing room, but on the whole it’s a war cry of an opener and an excellent window into what Future of the Left have done and continue to do.
“Failed Olympic Bid” kicks off with those industrial synthesizers and a syncopated guitar rhythm, lending a very post-punk vibe. Falco spends the whole song on a single note, hammering away at words while guitars and shrill electronic pulses fight for prominence. Here, the guitars add depth and fury while the electronics suggest monotony and repetition; the day-to-day life in England’s poorer towns, their citizens watching as money is poured into the 2012 Games, making London the star and lesser cities the economic and social victims. “Cosmo’s Ladder” is slightly milder in sound but not sentiment: a comment on celebrity culture and its associated self-absorbed fixation on personal beauty, it contains lines like “Promise you’ll be there when age plucks out my hair/And pins it to my chest, please don’t get too depressed” and “I have seen into the future/Everyone is slightly older.” It still contains dissonant electronic touches and a menacing bassline, and the song as a whole has more than a passing similarity to Dead Kennedys’ classic “Holiday in Cambodia.” There’s the same sarcasm, a similar tongue-in-cheek and simultaneously vicious vocal delivery, and a strong resemblance in the reference to foreign holiday destinations popular with Americans. Instead of annoying me though, I think the references are obvious enough to serve as a tip-of-the-hat to Dead Kennedys’ song, and “Cosmo’s Ladder” is definitely original enough not to be seen as derivative or unoriginal. The song’s a success to me both before and after I noticed these similarities, so I think that’s another win for FOTL.
“City of Exploded Children” is actually a lot more mellow, and has a circular structure that suits its themes of war and the casualties of it. Just after the halfway point bagpipes and snare drums are added to the simple guitar line, building slowly and poignantly until the last line “Fall in lines on the common sheep/He is one, he is two, he is nothing to our thousands.” “Camp Cappucino” gets back to the jutting angularity similar to “Failed Olympic Bid” and offers plenty of sharp digs at the middle class and some classic Falco nonsequiturs to boot. And “Robocop 4 (Fuck Off Robocop)”? Well, it’s got a fabulous title. While the music here leaves a lot to be desired, this comment on the seemingly unending sequel machine that is Hollywood is apt and clever. And it ends with the brilliant line “(the first director died)”.
“Polymers Are Forever” lands squarely in the middle of the album and is another of its more interesting tracks. It has a synthetic sheen to it that underlines its title. Again, there’s not a lot of musical variation, but its repetition serves to compound Falco’s vitriolic attacks on the myriad subjects in his crosshairs. “Sorry Dad, I was Late for the Riots” takes aim at the media and the appropriation of activist, leftist symbols by hipsters who don’t care about or understand the deep social iniquities that cause riots and protests. The accompanying music leans in a bit more of a pop direction than do other songs on this collection, and there’s a catchiness that’s boosted by a synth line that’s more synthpop than industrial in tone.
“A Guide to Men” is both completely ridiculous and deadly serious, questioning the direction that civilisation has taken since its very beginning. That dichotomy is put particularly well in the phrase “Were they holy emperors? Or were they horny actors?/Holy emperors? Holy actors?/Holy? Horny? Emperor penguins?/This is a song about total war.” How much of what we know about our history and origins is influenced by movies? If history is written by the winners, how much don’t we know about? Are we curious enough to find out? There’s some electronic processing added on the vocal lines above, and it’s quirky and haunting at the same time. How do we call ourselves civilised at all, with the catastrophes we’re collectively in?
Closing number “Notes on Achieving Orbit” is a kind of amalgamation of all the subjects covered thus far on The Plot Against Common Sense and over its 6 and a half minutes, builds to an overwhelming intensity. Invoking the kind of memories indelibly caused by the announcement of catastrophic world events and traumatizing personal information, “Notes on Achieving Orbit” turns those moments on their heads, posing questions that would instead be prompted by a complete takeover of gossip and celebrity/entertainment media. Of course, this future doesn’t seem remote at all anymore, giving it more power to scare and intimidate as opposed to simply being laughed off. Again, for all its ridiculousness, it’s a very grave song and an appropriate end to this album of anger and concern.
As a capsule of and commentary on our damned and damning times, The Plot Against Common Sense is wholly a success. Personally, I’ve preferred some of FOTL’s previous musical directions, but a quibble like this is really just redundant hair-splitting. The fact that this kind of indignation is a product of its writers’ being well-informed and highly articulate is a delight to me. The album is more than solid: the music captures and carries the meaning of its words farther than they can reach, and the oblique, thoroughly contemporary way FOTL has of sculpting their words and questions into uncompromising and yet funny songs is excellent to see on each successive album they make. Future of the Left, please consider this a handshake and definitely a job well done.