The late '90s were tumultuous years for the Fall. Several long-term members of the band were fired or quit, and the group played some of the most disastrous gigs of its entire career. Levitate, the band's 1997 full-length, ended up being the final album to feature bassist Steve Hanley (who had been in the Fall since the '70s) as well as drummers Karl Burns and Simon Wolstencroft, and it wound up being produced by leader Mark E. Smith himself after producers Keir Stewart and Simon Spencer quit a week into the recording sessions, taking most of their session tapes with them. The result is easily one of the weirdest, most scattered releases in the entire Fall catalog, and one that has always proven to be divisive with fans and critics. The accessibility and pop hooks of the group's '80s run have all but vanished, and Smith's vocals are rough and loud in the mix, sounding like he's shouting directly at you rather than singing. The songs themselves are a haphazard mess of junky breakbeats (somewhat resembling drum'n'bass, especially on opener "Ten Houses of Eve"), abrasive guitars, and smeared, squirming electronics courtesy of Julia Nagle, who played a crucial role in the group during this era. As on 1990's Extricate, the Fall flirt with dance music on many of these tracks, but as wonderful as songs like the single "Masquerade" are, they're only likely to confuse ravers. The same can be said for "4½ Inch" (apparently a nod to Nine Inch Nails), a barrage of smushed breakbeats and multiple Marks yelling about a house on fire. Perhaps the most outright fun moment on the album is "I'm a Mummy," a rocked-up cover of a hilarious 1959 novelty tune by Bob McFadden & Dor (the latter being a pseudonym for Rod McKuen). It loses the punch line of the original, which was a playful jab at the beatnik generation, but the Fall make the song their own. They also cover Hank Mizell's 1958 rockabilly single "Jungle Rock," presumably as a play on the musical genre known as jungle, but it's a very sideways interpretation of the genre; the drums are too slow and basic, and there's not enough bass. Of course, comparing the Fall to any trends or styles of music is entirely beside the point. They always existed on their own terms (or more accurately, Smith's own terms), and the confounding Levitate stands as one of the purest examples of their creative freedom. Although it's undoubtedly going to sound off-putting to anyone who isn't familiar with the band already, it's certainly worth hearing if you're already a fan.
AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2