After a loose trilogy pondering Big Daddy et al, a badger called Nick Lowe and New York in the ’70s, the reincarnated form of the artist, writer and pop provocateur Luke Haines – who declared himself dead on a 2005 boxed-set – retreated underground for last year’s British Nuclear Bunkers. Mostly instrumental, and entirely electronic, it was a concept album and so shared something with its predecessors.
Here, though, is Smash The System, Haines’ first non-concept album since 2009’s 21st Century Man – although most of Haines’ output since The Auteurs underloved swansong (or should that be the underloved Auteurs’ swansong?) How I Learned To Love The Bootboys has seemed part of some grand, overarching concept; a sinister pre-Scarfolkian weltanschauung where it’s perpetually nineteen-seventy-something.
Fitting fairly snugly into this, Smash The System revisits some previous tropes, and arrives wrapped in a grainy snapshot of surprisingly menacing morrisers and some Crowleyian runes. There’s a colour palette, too, and alongside ‘Burnt Intellectual Barbarian Orange’ and ‘Civilisation Is About To Die Lavender’, some blocks are labelled with the song titles. Appropriately, it’s an album of mixed shades. There’s hushed, haunted folk, glammy stomps and scattered sitar, kazoo and harmonium, all played by Haines.
Synths are still key too, propelling the title track’s rabble rousing (and who couldn’t get behind “I like The Monkees, do you like The Monkees?/Now’s the time to smash the system”?), whining through the choppy funk of Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski and Me and underpinning the first couple of tracks. Sung from the perspective of the titular organ (“And I lived in a jar, in East Berlin”), over minimal 808 claps and squelchy bass throbs, Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain Is Missing drops in on an old friend, last seen on 1996’s Red Army Faction song cycle. If it was at all shocking at the time, we’re used to these warped provocations now, and there’s an amusing disconnect between Haines’ dead straight delivery and lines like “There’s a hullabaloo in the Stasi HQ” – “Jurgen, Jurgen, call the surgeon”, indeed.
Next, Black Bunny (I’m Not Vince Taylor) stacks heavily processed guitars over its synth pulse, abrasive static and Suicide-esque electronic rock’n’roll, before things get more bucolic, but no less bizarre. “My baby loves ritual magick … she loves to make the garden grow”, Haines intones over acoustics and droning harmonium, and the frankly terrifying Power Of The Witch spins a yarn about fetching ritual offerings from the all-night garage over stuttering acoustics and synth belches – a ramble through seedy suburban horror which builds in bloodcurdling, gritted-teeth intensity.
Continuing the more acoustic feel, a Saturday afternoon trip to buy a Bomber Jacket seems like Haines abandoning the fantastical or character-based songs and singing from experience – “Some town punks said ‘Are you a hippy, mate?/Do you support CND?'” – and is among the best things he’s done in years.
Avoiding the strictures of the concept album works well, allowing Haines to play around with genres and subjects. A mock T-Rex preserved in amber, the one-man-glam-band Marc Bolan Blues bears more than a few traces of the Auteurs, while The Incredible String Band can join the ranks of Great Songs About Bands. Sounding – in the best possible way – like it was cobbled together in about five minutes, and boasting a kazoo solo, it’s as whimsical as its subject (“Songs about caterpillars, hedgehogs and Death”) but no less heartfelt for it. Sage advice, too: “They may take a while to get into, but you should give them a go”. You really should.
It might at times be a little harder to pick apart exactly what Haines is on about here (Bruce Lee…’s cartoon salutes; Are You Mad?’s tinned spaghetti interjection), but it clearly all makes sense to him. Whether there’s a concept behind it all or not, he again demonstrates a knack for writing in a variety of styles while sounding uniquely himself. As long as he’s got stories to tell, they’ll be worth listening to.