The thing I like most about Future of the Left’s ‘Polymers are Forever’ ep is how little it foreshadowed what was to come. Granted, it was terrific in its own right, the infectious bluster of “With Apologies to to Emily Pankhurst” giving way to “Dry Hate’s” relentlessly acerbic bile and “New Adventures’s”faux pop affectations. The latter song in particular is an especially stellar distillation of the band’s predominant attribute: the masterful lyricism of singer and front-man Andy Falkus. For as intelligent and clever as FotL songs are, Falkous lends an effortless air to lines like, “She had her father’s laugh / but not his smoker’s cough / it must have been the lack of tar in heroine.” While the overall vibe of the ep wasn’t anything drastically different from Falkous’s earlier work, lyrics like these should have been a tip off as to what listeners could expect from FotL’s third album, even as they underwent some significant sonic upheavals.
Oh, but how I envy the uninitiated, those of you who are learning of “Falco” here for the first time. Every genre of music has those singular figures who seem to embody the very ethos of their artistic movement, and in that respect, Andy Falkous warrants mention in the same breath as Jello Biafra and Paul “H.R.” Hudson. From the very beginning, Falkous set himself and his first band, Mclusky, apart by crafting some of the most literate and witty punk songs around. This formula first found its apotheosis with 2002’s ‘Mclusky Do Dallas,’ a fleet 36 minute LP that evokes The Pixies with their brake line cut. It would be 7 years and one band later, with Future of the Left’s ‘Travels with Myself and Another,’ that Falkous would recapture and even surpass that previous album. Where Mclusky lived and died by its frantic riffs and snarling intellect, Future of the Left afforded Falkous a slightly more restrained and experimental platform upon which to hurl his invective spirit upon the masses.
If these two albums bear any fault, it’s that they might be just a little too immediate for their own good. Exceptional though they are, one can generally assimilate them before too long, limiting their longevity somewhat as certain tracks start to sound more and more similar upon repeated listens. While I’ll still throw it on whenever I’m feeling especially festive, I haven’t regularly returned to ‘Do Dallas’ in quite some time, and while the opening track of ‘Travels’ provided the perfect alarm clock soundtrack to my senior year of college, that album too has gradually fallen out of personal rotation. Perhaps Falkous was of a similar mind when he set about preparing for ‘The Plot Against Common Sense,’ and endeavor that would prove to be more difficult than most. Despite the widespread critical acclaim of the aforementioned albums, Common Sense wound up an independent production, costing a reported 2,000 pounds to record over the course of 6 months and 16 studio days (keep that in mind for later). What’s more, the interim between ‘Travels’ and ‘Common Sense’ would find Falkous and longtime drummer Jack Egglestone adding a whole other half to their lineup, with the joining of Jimmy Watkins on guitar and backing vocals, and Julia Ruzicka replacing former bassist / keyboardist Kelson Mathias. At the end of it all, however, FotL would produce their most diverse and ambitious work to date, as well as a creative high point for Falkous.
Not that you’d know it from the beginning; ‘Common Sense’s’ opening track, “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman,” is vintage Falkous, a barnstorming, fuzzed out thrasher about the commercialization of the punk ascetic. Everything about it, from the namedropping of the iconic Ramones track to the climactic shout-out to advertisers everywhere, is a far cry from the more nebulous critiques of FotL’s past. This may suggest that Falkous and co. are done giving listeners the benefit of the doubt when it comes to understanding what they’re talking about. Songs about the 99% marches (“Sorry Dad, I was Late for the Riots”) and artless Hollywood cash-ins (“Robocop 4 – F*ck Off Robocop”) comprise the lions share of Common Sense’s scope.
Still, this blunter approach yields spectacular results all the same, especially on “Failed Olympic Bid,” a thundering behemoth of cultural disillusionment. Like a junked-up James Bond theme, whistling synth stabs interweave which echoing guitar riffs, conjuring a runaway piece of machinery every bit the indictment of crass sponsorship and fruitless economic initiatives as the song’s lyrics. From here, we move on to “Beneath the Waves An Ocean,” the final act of ‘Common Sense’s’ opening thematic arc. Where “Sheena” set the standard and “Olympic Bid” revealed the band’s prowess, the third track stands as the keystone to the entire record. Upon undulating bass, Falkous delivers his ultimatum: “You’re not just a punchline now / You’re more than the end of something.” And then the bridge, “No way you’ll ever find peace / You’ll ever find peace with the name they gave you.” While Falkous isn’t about to start letting others dictate his actions or intent (again, more on that later), he’s absolutely had it with being held to the same standards of his past works. No longer will FotL be known glibly as “that witty rock outfit from Cambridge;” now, you’ll really be listening to what they have to say.
And Common Sense makes such a prospect downright appealing, as Falkous’s rhetoric comes packaged in indelible tracks like “Cosmo’s Ladder,” easily the most irreverent take on the “first world problems” meme to date: “You’re more likely to burn up / in Beirut or Belize / than wake up in a marketplace / with shrapnel in your knees.” There’s a lot of invective directed at the culture of entitlement, both here and on tracks like “Camp Cappuccino” and “Sorry Dad, I was Late for the Riots.” While the former successfully carries on “Cosmo’s Ladder’s” new wave enthusiasm, “Riots” may be the albums most effective polemic, taking broad potshots where it can and laying blame upon all concerned parties. While “the Rich don’t care about total war or the death of the church,” the youth are content to let photo ops with Slipknot and Chumbawumba stand in for actual reform. If that seems harsh, then just listen to “Field Goals in Slow Motion,” an even more bitter take-down of lower class complacency. The tone of the song may evoke a soccer anthem, but lines like “As racist strikers come my friend / you’re the best this club has sold” root the album firmly in the realm of satire.
As the album goes on, it become obvious that the real plot against common sense is inherent in society itself. Everything from suburban lasciviousness (“Anchor”) to corporate soulessness (“Rubber Animals”) to shortsighted wastefulness (“Polymers are Forever”) winds up on the chopping block. The culmination of it all comes in “Notes on Achieving Orbit,” the death knell of our fame obsessed culture. When reality TV stars are lifted aloft as heroes (“Where were you when Russell Brand discovered fire?”), what good is any true sense of accomplishment? Humanity may have reached a new epoch when it could view its own planet from space, but as “Notes on Achieving Orbit” explains, such a view these days would only yield a decrepit, ruined shell of former glories.
On June 12, 2012, The Plot Against Common Sense was be unleashed upon the world, receiving uniform praise from the general music press. Of particular exception to this, however, was the music magazine Pitchfork, whose numerical score of 6/10 was accompanied by a particularly aggressive take-down of FotL’s perceived new direction. Worse than simply not enjoying the sound of the music, the critic displayed a uniform ignorance of the album’s pedigree (referencing “corporate-slick production”) and subject matter, almost willfully misinterpreting several songs.
Typically, such criticism, ill-formed or otherwise, would best be left to stew on its own, with no dignifying responses issued. Instead, in this case, Falkous felt so inclined as to retaliate with a review of the review, and let it be said that the result is a thing of wonder. In his retort, Falkous doesn’t just transcend the prospect of addressing one’s assailant, he lets loose with the full essayic authority that The Plot Against Common Sense embodied. His open letter, which begins by acknowledging the gaucheness of critical reprisals, elucidates the nature of Falkous’s band, his artistic intent, and his general worldview every bit as well as the album in question. I wouldn’t be surprising if, upon the jokingly proposed 10th anniversary rerelease of ‘Common Sense,’ both the Pitchfork review and Falkous’s response were included as album inserts. Whether or not you can condone Falkous’s response, or even his music, there’s no denying that where comebacks are concerned, this is as good as it gets.