Here’s a wonderful surprise: the fifteenth studio album from the exotic, delicate, tumbling, shimmering and shiny Monochrome Set, is one of the very best albums of 2019
Artist: The Monochrome Set
Album: Fabula Mendax
Label: Tapete Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The pioneering Monochrome Set emerged from London in 1978 and helped invent the slightly fey Roxy Music-done-in-Origami/Punk Rock-done-in-whispers sass and clatter that was to define post-punk.
Their sound and lyrical perspective – rooted in shuffling, strumming drama, self-reflection and self-loathing — was especially influential on The Smiths and the Postcard bands (like Magazine, their influence on the Smiths is absolutely fundamental, if rarely discussed). Five (!) decades later, Fabula Mendax displays that that The Monochrome Set are not only one of the most valued survivors of the first generation of post-punk, but in the shadows of cultdom they have continued to make vital, affecting, and engaging music.
To me, Fabula Mendax feels like England. When you think of how England feels, what occurs to you?
Is it the art, all those great canvasses sprayed with the colors of the sea and molasses? Is it the music, hysterical or polite and life defining? Or is it the history, full of Eadreds and Eadwigs and Æthelreds and Æthelstans? And what about the realm’s ancient Bronze Age fingers of stone, rising from the rolling green dream of the countryside?
Maybe. But when I think of what England feels like, here’s what comes to mind:
I visualize running down rainy, dreary, shuttered streets after the pubs have closed while a little too high on hashish, all the while deeply craving Indian food. I picture infrequent trees drooping low over the High Street, the fish-eyed globes of the streetlamps so piss-yellow dim that they seem to give off less light than no lamp at all. On each side of the narrow two-lane road (which seems to sag in the center, like the kitchen of an old downtown apartment) I see the greasy storefronts of newsagents and kebab houses and chip shops so dark they feel they have been shut for decades, even though they may have been open just hours earlier.
An empty, rainy High Street late at night in a lesser English city feels like a world made out of wet newspaper by a cold, silent, unloved child. No matter how warm and buzzing with conversation the pubs may have been a few hours earlier, it feels like a world to which joy will never return. There is no place as lonely as a small, wet English city late on a Sunday or Tuesday night.
For me, this is the world the Monochrome Set and Fabula Mendax seems to capture.
On Fabula Mendax, The Monochrome Set find a romance in this sadness, a beauty in the ash of the repeating moment. They couple the bittersweet ambience of their dripping cities with the lute-like sparkle and anti-gravity of a chiming guitar. Their melodies and rhythms have a skip that sounds like the lullabies of gypsies, or the last blue and red neon embers of a travelling carnival late on a Sunday evening.
Fabula Mendax is possibly the best ‘deep’ wispy British pop album since 16 Lovers Lane by the Go-Betweens (it also reminds me of what would happen if you morphed the eccentric power of the Fall’s Live at the Witch Trials with the rainy-day vibe and melodic ease of Morrissey’s Viva Hate). Dramatic, cinematic, both lush and anxious, simultaneously small and large, Fabula Mendax is a modest masterpiece. It is a sweet little thimble of an album, but when you hold that thimble up to the light on the ceiling the room is instantly full of blinking city-fogged starlight, the red-thread of city traffic, and eighty-eight blue-white crescents, the reflection of the waning gibbous moon shimmering on a stone-colored city river. If Fabula Mendax had been released in the pre-plurality era (that is, in the Time of Deliberate Effort and Intention, when we unwrapped, and did not merely click) it would likely be a classic, to be regarded alongside English Settlement, Underwater Moonlight, The Queen is Dead, Kimberly Rew’s Shock Horror, and other splendid museum-worthy artifacts of EPEP (English Pop Eccentric and Pure).
VIDEO: Monochrome Set “Summer of the Demon”
Like R.E.M.’s masterful Fables of the Reconstruction (which this album bears some conceptual resemblance to – it is both wet and gothic, Post Punk and baroque), Fabula Mendax musically and lyrically explores the idea of being both of a culture and alien to it. Whereas R.E.M. were wrestling with (and celebrating) their relationship to the American south, the Monochrome Set’s lead singer and principal songwriter Bid – nee Ganesh Seshadri – integrates the melodies and rhythms of his upbringing into the chimes, rumbles, shuffles, and rain-like atmospherics of the Monochrome Set’s electric-acoustic post punk. Bid and the Monochrome Set have found a way to make an album absolutely suffused with Asian culture while still being firmly in the Feelies/Go-Betweens/Orange Juice tradition of shuffling, urgent post-Velvets post-punk.
Fabula Mendax is the Monochrome Set’s third album since the departure of exquisite lead guitarist Lester Square (who bought an almost Shadows-like sense of melody to the band, his guitar often acting virtually as a second lead vocalist). It is also the first on which they seem to have found a truly solid footing in a post-Square identity. The Monochrome Set no longer sound like they are chasing a cab down the street that they’ve left their wallet in because they were too busy knitting a sweater out of steel wool. However, they certainly retain the wit, the wisdom and the slightly hurried strumming of their earlier work. In fact, this happily earnest thrumming, when coupled with the rumbling rhythm (which sounds both tribal and restrained, like Adam & the Ants playing in a carpet-muted Indian restaurant), sometimes makes Fabula Mendax sound like the Feelies playing Bollywood covers of Smiths songs. Perhaps it is slightly more descriptive to say that Fabula Mendax is what I would expect if Morrissey, Cornershop and Orange Juice combined to make an album with the gravity and charm of Paris 1919 (yes, that’s the ticket!).
Now, there is a larger theme to Fabula Mendax, and an ornate and enchanting one, too. Rather than attempt to surmise, let me quote directly from the official description of the concept on the press release:
“Fabula Mendax is based on manuscripts written in the 15th Century by Armande de Pange, a companion of Jehanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc). Follow Armande as she flees her unhinged family, only to be caught up in the chaos of The Hundred Years’ War. She encounters and trails the enigmatic Joan, later becoming a part of her expanding group of followers. As they travel west into the war zone of Northern France, they meet a motley medley of scheming noblewomen, bellicose knights, nefarious bishops, and assorted rotters, rogues and renegades.”
I love the way that sounds, truly, but you don’t have to deeply absorb this exotic concept to enjoy the album — we are not entering Marillion or Rick Wakeman territory here. Fabula Mendax works beautifully with no awareness of this theme. I will note that the lyrics on Fabula Mendax consistently sound like sweet and witty meditations on aging, the expansion of the mind and the contraction of the body; the text can most definitely be interpreted as reflections on the power of music, and how this force lives within us, without ebbing, as we age. In fact, for all of the depth and obscurity of the master concept, I prefer to think that this is what Fabula Mendax is really about, and the wisdom, grace, and engaging texture of the record bear this out.
All of which emphasizes this point: There are many revered and ancient rock acts that are still making absolutely first-rate music. But Monochrome Set have touched the top of a very rare flagpole: 41 years into their lifespan, they have released the best album of their career. No elder statesman pop/rock act has pulled that off since Scott Walker made Soused.
Like, say, Savage Republic, the Sound, the Passions, or Josef K, Monochrome Set have always existed as a highly respected yet decidedly lesser-known purveyor of the sparky, smart, flickering, fizzing, artistic and eccentric genre known as post-punk. Fabula Mendax, one of 2019’s must-hears (especially for any fan of thoroughly English, pastoral-panicky folkishly punky rock’n’roll), will hopefully add a much-deserved exclamation point to a long, diverse, and consistently valuable career of The Monochrome Set.
AUDIO: Monochrome Set Fabula Mendax (full album)