Vulgar trash or provocative art?
Honestly, this is probably the most negative review you’ll read of Serfs Up!, the new album from English rockers Fat White Family. The critical consensus has been overwhelmingly positive, as many seem to agree that the band, often known for shocking and incendiary lyricism, have refined their rougher edges and found the perfect balance.
And in some ways, it’s true. Compared to their earlier work such as “Touch The Leather” and “Whitest Boy On The Beach,” Serfs Up! certainly feels mild by comparison. But to a first-time listener, Fat White Family’s often uncomfortable social views are thinly veiled and ever-present. One could argue Serfs Up! loses on both ends in this regard: it’s still often inaccessible for newcomers, while hardcore fans may feel like the band is compromising their identity in an attempt to appeal to those newcomers.
This conundrum is apparent right from the get-go. The album opener “Feet” is patently eerie and unsettling. But the use of a particular racial slur for the sake of shock value or illustrating a point (or both) is simply inexcusable. To call a band that feels compelled to use that word “cultured” certainly feels wrong.
On the other hand, there are moments of genuine, mesmerizing brilliance on Serfs Up! “Kim’s Sunsets” offers layered and dynamic instrumentation. Headlined by a catchy melody, layers of backup vocals and synth noise, this song shows what Fat White Family are capable of at their best. And the lyrics are more than a shallow attempt at shock value. Take the second verse, for example: “Heavenly dams hold up the sky/ Faces lit up with immortal smiles/ Under Paektu, an ocean of pride/ How it goes, so it goes/ Kim’s sunsets”
Fat White Family even manage to top “Kim’s Sunsets” on “Tastes Good With The Money.” With an operatic opening akin to the Halo theme music, it’s hard not to expect something epic to follow. They deliver with a simple but biting guitar riff behind a simple, slinking rhythm and subtle bass lines that gives the song an air of mystery and a hint of deviousness. The band refocuses their often uncomfortable social commentary with a more economic bent, and the result is fantastic. A deep, chilling voice monologues during the bridge: “There’s ash in your latte/ As you slip into something dangerous/ Dipping into a tear-shaped swimming pool/ The lobster red blood of the apocalypse/ Eyebrows trimmed/ Gotta fathom your own legacy/ Slimming shakes/ Bathing on the right side of surprises/ And a big mushroom cloud/ For the middle classes/ Leaves a beautiful shape/ For you to project your fears onto”
At long last, it feels like Fat White Family truly put it all together, even more than “Kim’s Sunsets.” This is the best track on the album, and it makes it easy to see what others find great about this record. However, it doesn’t negate the problems of Serfs Up!
The album’s concluding track, “Bobby’s Boyfriend” toes the line between these two extremes. This song sounds like a nightmare embodied, as its sickening repetition and slight dissonance make it sound like the descent into madness put to music. The band’s ability to masterfully paint such a powerful and vivid image speaks to their creative abilities when at their best. And the song—along with Serfs Up!—concludes in fitting fashion with the refrain, “Bobby’s boyfriend is a prostitute.”
In some ways, this delicate balance is what makes Fat White Family so spellbinding. When listening to one of their songs for the first time, you have no idea if you’re in for brilliant poetry that will stop you dead in your tracks and make you think, or something so unnecessarily off-putting and cringe-worthy that you wonder why you’re listening at all.
In this regard, Fat White Family haven’t lost their identity, but rather refined it as many critics have suggested. Their songs intend to make listeners uncomfortable, and they succeed time and again. But this provocative nature is a double-edged sword, often crossing the line into offensive, disturbing territory. Serfs Up! is an overall worthwhile listen, but do so at your own risk.