Even before we get to the music that makes up this record, there are several matters of a striking nature about Luke Haines’ latest project. The first is the title, which is written above. It is long. The second is, the man himself was dead, so his last album’s title had the world at large believe. (It was called Luke Haines Is Dead. Still is, so surely he must be.)
And, as Jimmy Cricket might’ve said, there’s more. The lyrics in the album sleeve. For a songwriter known for literary references by the oodillion and for all-round clever-clogsery, it comes as a surprise to find several typos. Tsk. Who’s responsible – that Sarah Lucas? Shoot her, say I, and burn the evidence. And write a song about Jimmy Cricket.
From an aesthetic point of view I could also mention ginger facial hair being a bad idea, but you probably want to read about the music now. That’s fine. There are no songs about ginger facial hair being A Bad Thing. Not even one called A Bad Thing. Which is a bad thing, surely. Nice wicker chair though. I used to have one just like it, but I didn’t have lilies to match.
So, what’s caused Mr Haines to rise from the dead wearing whiter-than-white? There seems to be one answer with two strands to it. He’s put together 10 songs with the fullest sound he’s yet recorded, and with some of the most obscurantist lyrics he’s ever penned. Even if you are from England, this is a record that should come complete with Wikipedia printouts explaining the references. Freddie Mills Is Dead, we’re told. So who was he? “The British Crosby,” apparently. Fancied by somebody called Mickey. “Nights are gay when you’re drinking champagne.” Aye aye.
As if knowing this, he provides a note for The Walton Hop, a song seemingly about grooming underage bodies: “The Walton Hop was a popular disco held at the Walton Playhouse… aimed at 14-21 year olds it ran from the late ’50s to 1990. Rave culture did for it.”
But that sound. There doesn’t seem to have been any obvious personnel changes behind the relative sonic gargantuity on aural display. Like all his solo work, Haines produced Off My Rocker with Pete Hoffman. Like all his solo work, musical phrases come in short, sharp bursts. But where before his songs lasted a couple of minutes, here they are fleshed out, with more phrases, more ideas. He’s either spicing things up or experiencing musical middle-age spread.
He’d wear it off instantly with the bouncey title track (it’s still long). The Richard X mix is catchy. The album version is bouncey. And the chorus features this: “Pop op art some Viennese Aktion/Cut a dash with De Stijl and Blast/Die Fahn Hoch a bit of your fancy/Please yourself at the art school bop.” Never let it be said Haines makes life simple.
Black Box Recorder cohort Sarah Nixey is on hand for backing vocals on closer Bad Reputation, which also features Vicky Matthews on cello and laments the damage done to the reputation of the Glitter Band – “it’s guilt by association,” he’ll have us believe. E-Gadd.
Drums throughout are the remit of Tim Weller. Otherwise, Off My Rocker is all Haines, but it sounds like a bigger, freer Haines. Even on Leeds Utd, musically the most restrictive track of the record. An intriguing development.
Some of the record’s best lyrics are saved for The Heritage Rock Revolution, where fans of Haines’ caustic wit will find bile beyond expectation for fossilised duffers who insist on playing clapped out old hits – and, save us, their new albums in full – till they drop. (Will he?) He even disses “the legacy of The Clash“. “If all the world’s a stage, god help us if there’s a war,” he laments at last.
No Haines record, it seems, is complete without setting up some English devil for a fall and then a saving grace. On this record, bigger means more, so we have a song called All The English Devils. He somehow fits Boudicea and Nobby Stiles into the same song, and leaves out Jeffrey Archer. Incorrigible. And then he throws in another song called Here’s To Old England (also featuring Freddie Mills – keep up at the back), where he lists an assortment of national characteristics to cheer on.
At times purposefully obscure, at times hinting he could do commercial if he really had to, this enormotitled record is ultimately an evolution of Luke Haines, dead or alive. He’s still documenting the bits and pieces of England that nobody else bothers with, and he’s still frustrating and delighting in roughly equal measure. One of these days maybe he’ll write a song for Comeback Kylie, adopted English institution, and the perversity will be complete.