Musical bedfellows don’t come more unusual than Luke Haines and Peter Buck. In the one corner, the irascible outsider, the man too odd for Britpop who we last heard of when he released a concept album about the residents of a fictional village who had been shrunk to two and a half inches after a load of solvent glue was dumped on them. In the other corner, one of the finest guitarists of his generation, who has spent his time playing the arenas and stadiums of the world with one of the world’s most successful rock bands.
The story of how they got together is almost as unlikely as the collaboration itself. Haines, a keen artist, painted 72 different portraits of Lou Reed, one of which Buck ended up buying. Despite having never met in person, they corresponded online and a new creative partnership was born. The end result skews more towards Haines’ back catalogue (especially with songs entitled Andy Warhol Was Not Kind and Rock N Roll Ambulance), but the unmistakable chime of Buck’s guitar reminds us that this is very much a collaboration – together with some help from long-term Buck associates Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon.
As ever with Haines, it’s his strange, off-kilter stories that draw you in. There aren’t many people who would open an album with a song about the rocket engineer and sometime oculist Jack Parsons, but Haines thinks nothing of it. With lines like “Rocket fuel makes me horny, terra firma kinda bores me”, it’s soon clear that this is Haines on top form. The namechecks and pop culture references continue throughout – The Ramones and Liberace are mentioned in Last Of The Legendary Bigfoot Hunters, while ’60s folk icon Donovan pops up in Apocalypse Beach.
Anyone expecting an R.E.M. album is likely to be a bit disappointed – while much of Beat Poetry For Survivalists is surprisingly accessible and catchy, there’s a whole load of wonderful weirdness to negotiate as well. French Man Glam Gang takes a glam-rock beat and has an eerie and unsettling atmosphere, mainly thanks to Buck’s squalling guitar riffs. Ugly Man Blues vows to be The Troggs song Reg Presley never completed, while the closing Rock N Roll Ambulance (featuring probably the most recognisably jangly contribution from Buck) casts Haines as the driver of a hearse to some sort of musical afterlife.
As with the majority of Haines’ material, Beat Poetry For Survivalists is aimed towards a specific audience – even with a megastar like Buck on board, he’s never going to be a million-selling artist. Yet for over 20 years, he’s maintained his position as one of our most consistently intriguing musical talents, and he could never be accused of phoning his work in. It may be the antithesis of Shiny Happy People, but this Beat Poetry is never anything less than compelling.