… formerly of Mclusky; now fronting Future of the Left.
When the Singles Jukebox took on a recent Future of the Left song, Fergal O’Reilly — who liked it — described Falkous as “permanently enraged,” filled with “irrational fury,” and “browbeating.” I guess this is reasonably accurate. On “To Hell with Good Intentions,” one of Mclusky’s best-known songs, he sounds like he’s holding hostages and listing emotional demands. (Browbeating is a strength of his.) And the song in question, “Arming Eritrea,” shoots for a size and grandeur that Mclusky always steered clear of; it leaves Falkous sounding a lot more conventionally furious. But all this talk of throat-shredding and bile only describes one thing about Falkous — possibly a minor thing, and probably not the most interesting thing. It doesn’t even begin to explain how he can be so funny, so witty, so precise.
I think Falkous’s gift is that he gets something lots of rock singers don’t: he understands the value of individual utterances. Often he treats each individual line of singing — his voice and his lyrics both — as a single dramatic performance. Sometimes they even seem “overheard,” like you’re catching one person speaking to another in a very specific situation. Falkous doesn’t give us much context for those situations, and as a result it can be pretty difficult to say what his songs are “about,” narrative-wise. But they’re easy to understand on the level of the utterances themselves, because he shades them with wit and character and loads of different inflections — all the different modes in which people speak to one another — in ways that can really resonate. Beyond that, you can imagine the context and the connections: the situation of the person speaking, the person the line is addressed to, the circumstances it’s delivered in. You can design your own set around this dialogue.
There’s not necessarily a ton of this in “Arming Eritrea,” but it’s definitely still there: hell, some of the first words are a fiery “C’mon, Rick, I’m not a child!” I don’t know who Rick is, or what he has to do with Eritrea. But the sense of the outburst itself seems complete. The speaker keeps insisting, in a tone somewhere between a plea and a declaration, that unlike some drunks out there, he knows his own worth, knows exactly where he stands, isn’t deluding himself that he’s special: “I’m an ADULT!” You can construct a lot of different contexts around that, but the sense of the utterance itself stays fixed, and Falkous knows how to give it voice. No matter who Rick turns out to be, you probably know what it means to want to scream at someone that you’re not a fool or a child.
There are better examples of his inflectional wit with Mclusky. One of my favorites was “Undress for Success,” which has not only a terrific range but a good sense of comic timing. The first half of the first verse is delivered in a relatively conventional rock shout — but in the second half Falkous starts parodying himself, barking and clipping his syllables to the point of laughter. (You can call it “parody” or just the good, clean, totally underrated fun of singing funny.) He’s got a killer line at the end of the chorus, and he breaks it in half to pace the effect just right: “When I lost my TEETH” — high, funny yelp on that last word — “I gained a friend.” Across the second verse he gets increasingly bug-eyed and comically serious — to the point of actually shouting “I AM ABSOLUTELY SERIOUS!” — and then deflates it by drifting into a smarmy, cliche-spouting, evening-news type of voice and following up: “And the weather was a bonus!” No matter what kind of scenario you imagine around this stuff — and I have an alarmingly specific environment I like to imagine this song taking place in — the stuff he’s doing with his inflections steals the show.
He did that rock-singing self-parody a lot with Mclusky — amusing the listener by going a little too far, getting too breathless, going comically unhinged for laughs. There’s plenty of humor in his lyrics, too. But the real great moments are when it all comes together in a knot: the words, the voice, the inflection, the performance of the thing like a piece of drama — it lets him telegraph emotion and get a laugh and get you on his side, all at the same time. He’s not just a bilious screamer: he gets so much more than that about voice.