Since the 1990s the figure of Luke Haines has stalked the world of music, like a misanthropic uncle at a wedding. From The Servants to the acclaimed Auteurs (where, by his own account, he “invented Britpop” in the early ’90s), via Baader-Meinhof to the Black Box Recorder moniker and latterly under his own name, he has produced a steady flow of albums and provided an entertaining, rumbling, grumbling running commentary on the state of the world and concerns closer to home over the years.
21st Century Man, too, is packed full of pop-cultural and historical references. Mentions of, if not songs based entirely around, characters such as Peter Hammill (ex-Van Der Graaf Generator main man) and Klaus Kinski (German actor and father of Nastassja) are certainly unconventional reference points, and probably make the casual listener work harder than would your common or garden lyricist. Indeed, one is often left with a sense of not quite getting the full story, or precisely the point which Haines is attempting to make, particularly on Russian Futurists Black Out The Sun and Our Man In Buenos Aires.
There is a profound Englishness to much of the content, as befits the self-styled Britpop originator. Lovely, surprisingly un-cynical opening track Suburban Mourning sings of a life of contented dullness in the English suburbs, and gently mocks those who fear them (“There’s no evil in the everyday / Just good honest people”. Its sister track Love Letter To London personifies the capital as a lover spurned by previous residents as they get older. “They said that they loved you / But they used you as a playground / When they were young”. A clever analogy likens the mass decampment to the English countryside of “young couples with children” to the evacuations during the Blitz.
English Southern Man, meanwhile, does show its fangs a bit more, singing of the kind of self-satisfied affluent southerner who regards where he lives as “God’s own country”, as he settles into early retirement and practices his golfing swing.
Despite the gentle, affectionate nature of the opening track, Haines still brings out his bitter, cynical side on many of the tracks. Klaus Kinski proclaims “Who needs people / Who needs friends / They only drive you round the bend”, and – bleakly – that “only hope will kill you”; Wot A Rotter satirises the scorn directed at the country’s underclass, brilliantly, with lines like “The working class went and got greedy (…) We could put all the buggers in service / But they’re drunken, lazy and ill”; Our Man In Buenos Aires directs some of the ill-feeling back on himself, singing “Looked in the mirror, I said ‘Who’s that fucking freak’” and, revealingly, “Didn’t want to be mean / Attack’s the best form of defence”.
Darkest of all is the tale of a near-fatal car accident, followed by a suicide, in White Honky Afro. The sense of anger and menace is ably supported by a handful of well-placed profanities (Klaus Kinski, Our Man In Buenos Aires).
The music is generally quite workmanlike, with occasional forays into glam rock, as on Peter Hammill and Wot A Rotter. At best, though, Haines produces some quite lovely tunes along the way, the melodies of which sing through on their own regardless of the lyrics that accompany them. Best in this sense are Suburban Mourning and Love Letter To London, which are also two of the three best tracks on the album altogether.
The third of these – probably the album’s defining moment (despite coming right at the end) – is the title track 21st Century Man. This sees Haines devote a verse each to several decades, firstly from his own lifespan. So, the 1960s are represented by Haines’ birth, and a “crossfire hurricaine” that hit the Home Counties, the ’70s hold childhood memories of the “Green Cross Code man” as well as Yasser Arafat, John Stonehouse and so on. The combination of the personal and the historical / national / international allows an impressionistic but fascinating picture of each decade to build, as Haines tells of being a “star in waiting” for most of the 1980s, then making his “masterpiece” in the 1990s, and describing his rise and fall in a concise couplet “Yeah, I was all over the ’90s / I was all over in the ’90s”.
Going on to cover some of the century’s earlier decades, in the context of his parents’ personal history, Haines concludes that he has felt like an “exile in a foreign land” for most of the 20th century, and that as it is going to be the century of his death, he is, in fact, a “21st century man” – a conclusion that could either seem depressing or perhaps strangely hopeful, and forward-looking.
This collection of songs once again proves to be entertaining, sometimes vicious, sometimes actually quite touching. Don’t worry though; there’s not much chance of Mr Haines approaching a mellow middle-age just yet.