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Dry Cleaning’s Stumpwork: Album Review

23 December 2022

Stumpwork Album Cover, Courtesy of the artist

The cover of Dry Cleaning’s sophomore album Stumpwork (4AD) is a photograph of a sudsy bar of soap sitting on a porcelain sink with the album title spelt out in curly pubic hairs. It is a peculiar album cover that vividly captures Stumpwork’s mood and lyrical content: a record filled with austere and corporeal vignettes that document the existential absurdity of everyday life.

The bar of soap on the record’s cover is slick and flesh-like; as if it is not an inanimate domestic object but something alive, creaturely and unsettlingly human. It reminds me of Australian artist Patricia Piccinini’s strange, fleshy sculptures that blur the line between the human and non-human animal. Piccinini’s hybrid creatures—like Dry Cleaning’s songs—are grotesque and abject but evoke empathy and an uncanny sense of familiarity. Both Piccinini and Dry Cleaning seem to be straddling the line between hyper-realism and surrealism in their craft. In Stumpwork, front-woman Florence Shaw continues to share her astute observations of late-capitalist, urban Britain over riff-heavy (yet increasingly dynamic) post-punk: “Peaceful fish, meat. Lying dead and flat in a chiller” while revealing the way in which the quotidian can become bizarre and comedically absurd: “Pleated curtains partly hanging. Partly pushed against the tinted window so it looks like a giant butt.” Shaw’s deadpan yet simultaneously languid and dream-like delivery also mirrors this confluence of the hyper-real and surreal.

Abject bodies were a common theme in Dry Cleaning’s debut album New Long Leg (2021). The songs contained references to multiple bodily flaws including limb length discrepancies, obesity, lethargy, scabs, pimples, pharmaceutical drug use and stomach pain. The bathroom scales on the back of the Stumpwork record, as well as the drain on the vinyl itself and the collection of decorative soap bars and shower rugs on the inside sleeves reflect Shaw’s sustained preoccupation with not only a banal, British aesthetic but with the imperfections of the human body and the obsessive rituals we perform in an attempt to repress these imperfections: “Will there be a hairdryer in my stateroom. Or should I bring one? What about shampoo? Will we be able to have laundry done on the ship? And what are the prices?”

In “Icebergs”, Shaw shares her experience with hearing issues after a parasite buried itself into her skull on tour and in “No Decent Shoes for Rain”, she ponders physical alienation and the awkwardness of sexual relationships during COVID-19: “I've seen your arse, but not your mouth. That’s normal now”. Like Piccinini’s unsettling sculptures, Dry Cleaning’s music reminds listeners of our intrinsically abject and creaturely bodies. This focus on the abject draws similarities to fellow South-Londoner Archy Marshall/King Krule’s sophomore album The Ooz (2017, True Panther Sounds). Marshall—who has regularly experienced nosebleeds since childhood—sings of bodies that are vulnerable and oozing; vessels that are bleeding, balding, pissing or spitting “gunk from lungs”. In a world where our bodies are increasingly presented online as two-dimensional, glossed-over images, such depictions of real, gunk-filled bodies are both subversive and refreshing. 

Courtesy of the artist and Charlotte Patmore

The sonic progression from New Long Leg to Stumpwork is subtle but similarly refreshing. While the band has sustained the unique brand of jangly, guitar-based post-punk solidified in their twin EP’s Sweet Princess (2019) and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks (2019), Stumpwork extends upon the increasingly experimental approach to composition and recording exhibited in New Long Leg by drawing on synth as well as more acoustic, percussive and brass/wind instruments (including a kazoo). Shaw’s vocals seem even more prominent in Stumpwork; it’s as if she is whispering directly into your ears and this—along with the whirling, chorus-soaked guitars, looped beats and meditative bass lines—affords the songs a haunting and hypnotic energy.

Stumpwork is a title with multiple connotations. It is not a word made up by the band but a specific style of embroidery popular in 16th century England in which pre-existing vignettes (mostly floral) are raised up to form a 3-dimensional effect. Indeed, the act of stumpwork draws similarities to Dry Cleaning’s own creative processes, where Shaw’s two-dimensional prose-poetry is collectively transformed by the band and its visual collaborators into something more alive, three-dimensional and dynamic. The title is also perhaps Dry Cleaning’s way of acknowledging the way in which their music—like the act of stumpwork itself—is etching a new layer upon the pre-existing palimpsest that is the British post-punk tradition.

Courtesy of the artist

As sewing skills were—and arguably still are—considered by the patriarchy to be essential tools for women, the album title has feminist significance. Shaw (who was originally a visual artist) is a master at weaving and stitching multiple random threads of daily experience together to form a single artefact. In naming the album Stumpwork, Shaw is speaking back to an established English tradition of female creation and labour. Her lyrical stumpworks, however, do not contain the idyllic, soft-feminine imagery of classical stumpwork but are playfully anti-pastoral: “An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside,” ambivalent towards romanticism: “I thought I saw a young couple clinging to a round baby. But it was a bundle of trash and food” and explicitly critical of patriarchy: “I see male violence everywhere.” Shaw’s poetic embroidery can be read as a contemporary, feminist form of stumpwork; a practice more focused on social satire than visual aestheticism.

Stumpwork is a quintessentially post-modern record: it is fragmented, self-referential, ironic, irreverent, sonically eclectic and sceptical of the grand myth of neo-liberalism: “Nothing works. Everything's expensive. And opaque. And privatised”. While the record does not reach for universal truths or contain any grand epiphanies, Stumpwork escapes nihilism through its moments of hope and optimism; moments that are delivered—in classic Dry Cleaning style—as unembellished and understated truisms: “Things are shit, but they’re gonna be okay.”

Listen to Dry Cleaning's Stumpwork here

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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