You can always rely on Luke Haines to produce the unexpected. Be it a concept album about wrestling, a blisteringly funny memoir about his time as the misfit of the Britpop years or even starkly entitling a ‘Best Of’ as Luke Haines Is Dead, the former The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder frontman is a master of the maverick.
Rock And Roll Animals revels in that perverse streak of Haines. For one thing, it’s billed as a ‘children’s album’. Safe to say this probably won’t appeal to even the most advanced of toddlers, but anyone who’s ever been intrigued and delighted by Haines’ twisted tales over the last 20 years will immediately be hooked.
So, ignore the cutesy cartoon of woodland animals on the front cover and try to see past the pastoral, relaxing folk music contained within. Haines hasn’t suddenly started specialising in lullabies – instead, this is a slice of twisted pyschedelic folk which takes in the North/South divide, rails against public art and names three woodland animals after musical icons Gene Vincent, Jimmy Pursey and Nick Lowe, all living in Walton-on-Thames (or Magic Town, as it’s renamed for these purposes). It is, you’ll be not at all surprised to hear, not your average kids’ album.
In this strange world, Vincent, Pursey and Lowe are, respectively, a fox, cat and a badger. Birds come to warn them they’re about to be attacked; they do battle with Antony Gormley’s gateway to the North-East, the Angel Of The North, and… well, nobody wants to be spoiled by hearing the end of the story, do they?
Like all the best nursery rhymes, this is dark, surreal stuff; there’s talk of hangmen, references to closed pits and striking miners and the ‘interludes’ spliced through the album are voiced by the Queen of dark, nay, terrifying comedy, Julia Davis. Even the many flutes and gently strummed acoustic guitars can’t disguise the nagging feeling of menace trying to force its way through. When the title track breaks into an a cappella chant of “everyone’s at it, they’re at it like rabbits”, you half expect Nick Ross to appear, beseeching you to not have nightmares.
As well as the dark imagery, there are ruminations on music itself – “Oh come on Mr Badger, you were an elder statesman for the New Wave” runs one line from A Badger Called Nick Lowe, and the wonderful Rock And Roll Animals In Space lists what sort of rock ‘n’ roll is or is not righteous – The Soft Machine are, The Rolling Stones, post-Brian Jones, are very much not.
As with Haines’ entire career, Rock And Roll Animals will be very much an acquired taste. For everyone who delights in a sitar-accompanied story about the Angel Of The North (or, “this monstrority of iron and wire”) attacking woodland creatures, there’ll be someone else who’ll be convinced that Haines has finally lost it. Yet it’s this tricky balancing act between genius and lunacy that keeps you listening and even invested in this tale.
So, very strange but oddly compelling – rather like Mr Haines himself. One of English music’s great eccentrics just keeps rolling on in his own sweet way.