My continuing pursuit of Comparative Literature (French minor!), in addition to my obligatory full-time employment and trying to keep a relationship afloat through it all, has necessitated a long, quasi-accidental moratorium on blog posting. It’s been a much, much longer interval than intended (but then, when isn’t it?). Every week I resolve to set aside an hour or two on the weekend to set down some thoughts on any bits of culture I’ve been experiencing, and every weekend I’m making French flash cards, reading assigned texts, or writing a paper instead. On those all-too-rare occasions when I can eke out the time from tous mes devoirs, I actually have those cultural experiences (go to a movie, read a novel, see a show, give a good listen to an album) that I’m not writing about. After that, temporally speaking, there’s simply been no remainder, no cushion of time in which to really reflect upon the experiences the way I like to.

That will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future as I exit “A term” (Intro to Comparative Literature) at UW and segue seamlessly (and exhaustedly) into “B term” (C-LIT320, “European Literature/Literary Modernism”--Rilke, Eliot, Woolf, Kafka, Gide, etc.), but my sense of an ever-widening gap rendering this little virtual space of mine progressively more impoverished has compelled me to just drop a couple of things and make an entry for the sake of mere life support.

Last autumn, just as I began running that first-year-French gauntlet, the first pane in what I have come to regard as a triptych of solo works by my longtime, previously group-affiliated Brit(pop) musical heroes arrived in the form of Luke Haines’s Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop. This is, properly speaking, Mr. Haines’s second “solo” album (if one disregards the fact that he’s the mastermind of all his projects, and if one doesn’t count the soundtrack to Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry or the brilliant orchestral re-recordings plus three timeless new tunes on Das Capital), and it’s definitely an extension of everything he’s put himself front-and-center of (which excludes his marvelous Black Box Recorder albums, where he was more the maestro than the star, a position very ably filled by Sarah Nixey).

Off My Rocker represents the further exploration of a certain style Mr. Haines seems to have been working with since The Auteurs’ How I Learned to Love the Bootboys album in 1999. It retains Bootboys/Oliver Twist producer Pete Hoffman, whose signature seems to be to render most cuts with a treble-y compactness, creating a meticulously sweetened, hi-fi sound that is one perfect way to spell “pop," and well-suited to Haines’s unfailing way with a vocal and musical melody. After proving he could reach maximum “rock ‘n roll” with the Auteurs’ fantastically noisy, Steve Albini-produced 1996 album, After Murder Park, Haines’s solo efforts have evidently been engineered for maximum clarity and vividness; for one particularly memorable example, the gorgeous guitar solo that concludes “England vs. America” from Oliver Twist takes off into almost feedback-less, pristine mellifluousness. It’s much too carefully constructed to blister the listener like “raw” rock ‘n roll can, but it has its own kind of electric-charged power, its own dynamic, more chiseled and formalistic Appollonian than chaos-set-loose Dionysian (but isn’t it remarkable that Haines has shown, over the course of a richly diverse body of work, that he can do both, and anything in between, with such apparent ease?).

The version of the title track that showed up on MySpace in advance of the album is actually the “single” version, the single itself (available on 7-inch or iTunes download only; no CD single, unfortunately) representing the fruit of a more or less one-off collaboration between Haines and au courant producer Richard X. The single, including the Richard X version of “Off My Rocker” and “The Best Artist” as the B-side, is really a work unto itself, to be considered apart from the album. Both tunes are sharp little jabs at The World of (Contemporary) Art, but the propulsive A-side is all about giving in to the rush of Art (it somehow manages to be almost completely poker-faced; like X-Ray Spex’s “Let’s Submerge,” it’s such a finely wrought, detailed, and caffeinated accounting of “going underground” that whether it’s a criticism or a celebration—or, somehow, both— becomes a very subjective matter). Not so poker-faced “The Best Artist,” one of the most menacingly incisive Haines tracks ever. Singing in the facile voice of an art-world flavor of the month, Haines deadpans lines like “I don’t work hard/I don’t try hard/’Cause I’m the best artist” and “How can you live the rest of your life not knowing/I am the best, I am the best?” before the song shifts from lacerating-laconic mode into a high-gear conclusion in which he sings over and over the satirical mantra “And the skinny white girls/and the black girls are not on the list/And the skinny white boys all say/‘I am the best artist’.” Musically, it recalls something both of Kraftwerk’s robotically tick-tocking “Hall of Mirrors” and of the eerier synthetic elements of Haines’s superlative Baader Meinhof project. It’s not just physically the flipside of seven inches of vinyl, but truly the dark obverse of the much peppier A-side. In short, it’s a brilliant revival of the pop-music 45 as a self-contained form. “Best Artist” would’ve been out of place on the album (as would, in a way, the super-sheened Richard X mix of “Off My Rocker”), but the two songs, both very fine works, complement each other perfectly when presented in this format.

The album itself, as I mentioned before, is a bit less of a departure, sonically speaking; it’s finely wrought pop-rock with some cleverly ornate synthetic overtones, very “new wave” in its aural sensibility, like his other solo efforts. But at its best (and I’d say that seven of the 10 tracks, excluding “The Heritage Rock Revolution,” “Fighting in the City Tonight,” and “Secret Yoga,” give us Haines in top form), it bests Oliver Twist Manifesto and lives up to anything on How I Learned to Love the Bootboys. The album version of “Off My Rocker” is much more metronomic and, to my ears, ever so slightly slower in tempo than the propulsive Richard X mix from the single; all the little differences add up to a more “retro” sound (this version also contains a fairly cool “Ich liebe frauline...” lyrical bridge that has been omitted from the remix). “Leeds United,” aptly selected as the second single, is top-notch Haines-glam, with piano, guitar, handclaps, delicate verses and a rockin’ chorus, musically speaking. Lyrically, it’s an exquisitely detailed picture of provincial-town week-to-week grind, with evocations of a dreary quotidian life that can be spiced up only by football, the pub, and that hint of exciting dread around the edges that comes from true-life serial-murder mysteries. Yes, Haines is possessed of the extraordinary level of economy and eloquence to pack all of these things into one standard-length pop tune.

In what does constitute a kind of musical expansion, there are intra-song interludes of pre-rock pop forms in two of the album’s other gems, with the bit of ragtime in “All the English Devils” and the waltz bit in “Freddie Mills is Dead.” These constitute neither random, throwaway nostalgia-without-content (something Haines clearly despises), nor any shallow, self-congratulatory, smart-reference-happy whimsy or irony (Beck, et. al, take note!). Rather, they’re the perfect musical method of actually altering the presumed significations of this old-timey music (with, by the way, all stylistic understanding and musical skill on display—Haines, unlike the aforementioned Beck, doesn’t go for the easy wow by interminably demonstrating the broadness of his palate and stopping short at that, but it’s apparent by now that he can do anything well). Haines has a long-term love-hate relationship with his homeland that goes to extremes (something that more and more Americans must be able to relate to nowadays), and that extends to obviously genuine affection for and understanding of this “period” music, as indicated by the engagement with which it’s rendered, as well as the probable not-so-niceness of the actual periods they (mis)represent—with more than a hint of glee at the ultimate inseparability of the two (Haines does, after all, seem to be bidding the “English devils” a simultaneous hearty good riddance and grudging bon voyage). The genuine aural trenchancy and simple (which is not to say easily concocted) melodicism of these arcane patches--alongside the lyrical references to the Machiavellian/imperialist criminality of Empire locally pinpointed in a “classic” English-gentleman type (“All the English Devils”), or the jarring shift to glam-punk tempo and noisiness (in “Freddie Mills is Dead”)--intimates that there’s an unhealthy fascination and defensive self-deception endemic to all backward glances, (pop) culturally speaking.

Along exactly the same thematic lines, when Haines sings “It’s a blast from the past, it’s an oldie but goldie,” in the surpassingly catchy “The Walton Hop” he’s referring at once to a very specific bygone time and place (The Walton Hop underage disco in suburban Surrey) in pop-music culture AND some most unsavory, long-repressed (and, to this establishment’s historical proprietors and above-age patrons, surely unwelcome) revelations associated with it.

Pop-music nostalgia and what we know from pop psychology as “recovered memories” also make for discomfiting—and headline-backed—bedfellows in what is, I think, not only the album’s best song but also one the finest compositions in Haines's œuvre: the scintillating final track, “Bad Reputation.” The Luke Haines we know and love is not, ever, one for pleasantries or unearned sentimentality; beware the fool who remembers “the good old days”—or thinks there is such a thing—in the world of Haines. But there’s an extremely affecting dimension of mourning when he sings, over a mesmerizingly gorgeous glam-guitar backing, “Now Gary Glitter/He’s a dirty old man/Sullying the reputation of The/Glitter Band.” The battling impulses to mourn over and revel in the demystification of a near-ubiquitously beloved and heretofore utterly innocuous pop institution are melded, through Haines’s unique alchemy, into two very unlikely sides of the same coin. And even after all that, we mustn’t forget the element of rueful humor in the idea that The Glitter Band—The Glitter Band!—had the kind of precious aura that could be tainted by the misbehavior of their leader. “Bad Reputation” is as accomplished and vital a work of pop music as you’ll ever hear. Although it closes an album that offers more than its share of unqualified mark-hitters, this track alone gives us reason enough to hope that Haines, whose rightful degree of fame and acclaim has eluded him at every turn, will continue to be granted an outlet for his voice (desperately needed now more than ever), whatever its guise.

* * * * *

How delightfully cockeyed is former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker’s view of his chosen medium? When I caught his formidably entertaining performance at Showbox in Seattle earlier this year, he announced that he had chosen a cover to perform in tribute to this town, and then proceeded to cap a relatively straightforward rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (a song I’ve never much cared about, to be perfectly honest) with “’Scuse me whilst I kiss the sky.”

Second pane of the triptych. Mr. Cocker was gracing us with his spasmodically-voguing presence as part of a promotional tour for his excellent first solo album, which, while a far cry from the departure that was his Relaxed Muscle side project, is not really like any Pulp record you’ve ever heard, either (perhaps it most closely resembles the This is Hardcore/We Love Life-era material). If Haines’s new batch has been uniformly cut sharp and hard as diamonds, there’s an astonishing variety of textures to the music Cocker has put together for this record; it is, to be sure, a rock record rife with ineffably great melodies, and all the musical moves act to forward this most important aim, but what a variety of moves it is! He reworks two songs we’ve already heard as his compositional contributions to Nancy Sinatra’s 2004 album, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” and “Baby’s Coming Back to Me,” in two opposite directions: the former, a (more or less third-wave) feminist bit of relationship-empowerment advice, is much faster and louder than Ms. Sinatra’s version; while the latter, a simple but moving life-during-wartime love song, is indescribably fragile and delicate—all steel drums and chimes, no snare drum—next to her take. “Black Magic” samples, in a front-and-center yet uniquely unobtrusive way, Tommy James and the Shondell’s “Crimson and Clover” (more as a jumping-off point than the main course of the song) into an orchestral, stomping glam monster. (The other great sample here is Carson McCullers reading from “The Member of the Wedding” as an epigraph to “Big Julie.”)

Cocker, whose most famous creation is probably Pulp’s class-conscious hit “Common People,” has not left such concerns behind, but he’s not in any way rewriting “Common People.” “Fat Children” and “A to I” are not manifestos; they’re sometimes self-castigating reflections about the muffed-up qualities of life in the West, one told from the point of view of a bourgeois victim (“Fat Children”), the other in the voice of someone who’s just waking up to what might be buoying his way of life (“A to I”). “Fat Children,” easily the most propulsive track here (in its noisiness and eccentricity, it almost reminds one of the poppier Fall), is a horror story of societal decadence, a vim-filled attack, but directed at whom? The murderous brats of the title? Or, as hinted at by the song’s tone, the complacent murder-victim narrator for whom one of the worst points of being killed by a roaming gang of pampered, obese children is that “They wanted my brand-new phone with all the pictures of the kids and the wife,” and who takes time out of his lament from beyond the grave to finger-wag, bourgeois-style, “The parents are the problem”?

“A to I” is both scary and funny; the song opens with the epigrammatic line “They want our way of life/Well they can take mine any time they like,” and the title refers to the chorus of “It’s the end/Why don’t you admit it/It’s the same/From Auschwitz to Ipswich.” This is Mr. Cocker’s post-09/11, post-Iraq-invasion wake-up call to the ever-apathetic and insular hip-kid and aging-hip-kid crowd (whom he refers to on another track, “Tonight,” as “All the culture vultures/and all the snot-nosed kids/all the so-called artists, wannabes and never-dids”), and it’s full of the kind of homely-yet-trenchant details he specializes in: “If your ancestors could see you standing there/They would gaze in wonder at your Frigidaire/They had to fight just to survive/So can’t you do something with your life?” None of this sacrifices the bouncy catchiness and slightly melancholy melody of the song, the most memorable example of which is the irresistibly tuneful keyboard bloops that propel the choruses. (There’s also the hidden track “(Cunts Are Still) Running the World,” which comes closest to an anthemic “Common People”-type entry and served as a pre-album Web-release taster, and also ran very apropos over the end credits of Alfonso Cuaron’s not-to-be-missed film Children of Men.) Even on the aforementioned “Tonight”—a love song, or at least an ode to love—the take-a-look-at-yourself “A to I” sentiment pops into the foreground: “You cannot set the world to rights/But you could stop being wrong/Tonight.”

Two of the album’s best songs, the soulful, richly layered ballads “I Will Kill Again” and “Disney Time,” also address, in an introspective, self-interrogating way, the troubled situation of the latter-day Westerner. “I Will Kill Again” sounds like the late-night mini-breakdown of a conscientious bobo ‘Net-surfer (guilty!), stuck almost helplessly in technologically-enabled escapism, with a slightly sarcastic reference to being serenaded with an acoustic guitar, lending all the more pathos to the sudden intrusion of wishful idealism: “And wouldn’t it be nice/For all the world to live in peace/And no-one gets ill or ever dies/Or dies of boredom at the very least?”

“Disney Time,” with its stately Bowie-ballad piano melody/glam-guitar combo (and that’s even before the angelic chorus comes in...) is simply a masterpiece, my favorite song on an album full of highly worthy candidates. If anybody can create a song with the theme of “Children are the future” or “Won’t someone think of the children?” without stooping to such ineffectual clichés, it’s the amazing Mr. Cocker, who starts us off with the query, perhaps from a child’s oddly touching, naïve-yet-wise point of view, “How come they’re called adult movies/When the only thing they show/Is people making babies/Filmed up close?” Having children is notorious for dulling any critical artistic sensibility, but Mr. Cocker, a father, transmutes his parental concern for the future of the world his child(ren) will grow up in into works that, though perhaps less exclusively venomous than some of his Pulp-era achievements, lack none of their tension, spark, and a unique ability to be incredibly moving at the most unpredictable points. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between this solo effort and anything that’s come before in the Cocker œuvre; without going so far as to damn with faint praise by bringing up “maturity” (as if Pulp’s records lack the best kind of musical and lyrical maturity, especially toward the end), the thematic focus is a bit less on using all the bons mots for cleverness—and anyone familiar with Cocker knows how impressively he can turn a phrase—and a bit more on deploying them to more emotional-on-the-surface effect. The result is something incredibly tender and elegant. While perhaps not a culmination (at least I hope not, not yet), Cocker’s sensibility is so present on this record, and yet it’s so different from anything he’s done before, that the listener can be excused for feeling at certain peak moments that his entire illustrious recording career has all been leading up to this.

* * * * *
The third, most problematic pane: Former Suede and Tears personality Brett Anderson’s self-titled debut solo effort. The first impression I get from this album, which I had anticipated ever so highly, is that Anderson is better inspired by bandmates who contribute enough to get equal credit in the songwriting process; his co-producer/co-songwriter here, Fred Ball, is either too much the yes-man or too much the session player, but his presence has not been terribly auspicious for the prospect of an Anderson solo career. Whether they always clicked or not on a personal level (and they certainly did not, not always), the combination of Anderson’s lyrics, vocal melodies, and singing with the inimitable musical talents of Bernard Butler, his former musical interlocutor on the classic first two Suede albums and in The Tears, have produced the best results to date in the Anderson œuvre. But each and every post-Butler Suede album has something to recommend it, as well; something in those collaborations still tempered any tendencies Anderson might have to be too desultory and/or on-the-nose (the main problems with the worst of this solo record). Without any collaborators with enough sway to shape or restrain Anderson’s vision, the results cannot really be called awful, unlistenable, or even wholly uninspired. But they are very noticeably uneven.

This album could be filed under “Vocals” or “Easy Listening” at your local record shop; there is something fussed-over, over-arranged about even the “louder” numbers like “Dust and Rain” and “Intimacy” (the former one of the albums’ keepers; the latter one of the duds). The most supportable inference to make from the record’s aurally quite mild-mannered tonality is that the aim was to create a “classic” pop album (Anderson himself has said he wanted something “not indie,” something more along the lines of the torchy edifices Scott Walker created with his compositions). Unfortunately, too many of the edges have been honed off to render the album anything truly outstanding or indispensable. It lacks personality, which previously has never been in short supply for Anderson; the difference between “classic” and “generic” has not been addressed astutely or sufficiently enough. Still, better the ornately tuneful, lyrically labored/banal likes of “The Infinite Kiss” than the musically lackadaisical, lyrically cringe-inducing missteps like “Intimacy” and “Ebony” (the latter of which, as my good friend and longtime Anderson fan supreme Jamie Rich has correctly pointed out to me, has perhaps the worst Anderson lyric ever, using “my liver is in your hands” in a laughably failed attempt to evoke alcoholic pathos). Those songs, if they had to see the light of day, belonged buried on b-sides; the actual b-sides of the album’s single, “Love is Dead,” are as good or better than the album’s tracks; buy the “Love is Dead” singles before you get the album, as “Mother Night” and “Clowns” are more captivating and rewarding than much of the album. One longs for the heady days of early Suede, when all the album tracks and the b-sides were essential achievements, and Anderson correctly claimed that the band was “incapable of writing b-sides.”

At their best, these songs do possess a moving hymnality. “Love is Dead,” “One Lazy Morning,” “To the Winter,” “Scorpio Rising,” “Colour of the Night,” “The More We Possess, the Less We Own of Ourselves,” and “Song for My Father” all pass muster, with “Love is Dead,” "To the Winter," “Scorpio Rising,” and “Colour of the Night” the only real standouts. Particular kudos go to the lovely string sections throughout, and to the timbre of the keyboards (courtesy Anderson’s co-producer, Fred Ball) on “One Lazy Morning,” “To the Winter,” and, especially, “Colour of the Night,” which has much the same qualities of sonic gentleness as Brian Eno’s “By this River” and is by far my most-played song from the album.

To my mind, what set Anderson, Cocker, and Haines apart when they emerged from the Britpop melee of the 1990s—ending, in retrospect, well ahead of the pack—was their absolute fearlessness when it came to being smart in both the “stylish” and “literate” senses. Perhaps what all three have in common is their commitment to honing and re-refracting the considerable brightness that each of these artists still has. But on Anderson’s album, easily the weakest of the bunch, that commitment has not come to very satisfying fruition; it demonstrates the danger of over-honing. It is different from anything he’s done before, but too much of it lacks any sense of necessity or uniqueness; it’s the only album of the three that contains anything one could call anodyne or anonymous. If you’ve ever wondered where the border between elegantly simple and simply dull lies, you can find it as you undertake the task of dividing the gems from the dross on this record.

awesome. didn't know there was a new luke haines.

nice to see you writing again.
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