Luke Haines delights in his position on the periphery of pop. Wilfully controversial and intermittently successful under the guises of The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder, Baader Meinhof and under his own name, Haines was and remains the clever-clogs’ favourite of the Britpop generation. New project The North Sea Scrolls sees the contrarian join forces with Irish songwriter Cathal Coughlan and the travel and music writer Andrew Mueller in order to create a surreal alternative history of the British Isles.
This is not an album aimed at the young person. The characters that populate this long, complicated album are drawn from the odds and ends section of 20th century popular culture – Joe Meek, Ian Ball, Martin Cahill, Francis de Groot and John Aspinall. Those who get the stream of obscure references will doubtless find this inside-out history gratifying, but others, tired by frequent googling, may not. As such, it’s unlikely to win Haines many new fans. That should be no surprise; Haines said in a recent musicOMH interview earlier this year: “I’m an artist. I do what I like! I don’t think about audiences. It’s not my problem. If you’re an artist you go with the ideas you have. You don’t think, ‘I wonder if I do this record, enough people will like it? Nah, I’m not going to do it because enough people don’t like it.’”
The press surrounding the album has focused on Haines’ contribution. Certainly, of the three artists at work here, he is the best known, and the deliberate oddness of the project bears his stamp. Haines’ voice and that of Cathal Coughlan’s are not dissimilar, and it’s occasionally hard to tell which of them is singing. Coughlan’s voice is perhaps the prettier of the two, but there’s little in it. The spoken word sections that sit between the songs are Mueller’s work, each relating a passage from the ‘scrolls’ in order to set up the next fantastical journey through England’s alternative story. The format works, and alternation makes sense, but the overall effect, after 27 tracks, is wearisome. A 13 track version has been released, without the spoken word sections, but this too is somewhat unsatisfactory, as the songs make far less sense without their individual preambles. The full-length album is bloated and the other a little too bewildering. It’s hard not to wish that a compromise could’ve been found between elaboration and concision.
Not that Haines would care, but it’s hard to avoid the judgement that this is a flawed project. While Scroll 1 sardonically observes the difference between the grubbily mythical American blues and English rock ‘n’ roll via a latent comparison between the music of Robert Johnson and that of the “bewilderingly popular beat group” Gomez, much of the rest of The North Sea Scrolls is less thought provoking. The invention is hit and miss: Oswald Mosely as Prime Minister is a nicely nasty twist, and casting Morris Men as a militia group is funny and actually incredibly scary, but the song about Tony Allen is simply not very interesting. Occasionally, The North Sea Scrolls veers uncomfortably close to the undeniably pretentious and arbitrary mish-mash of The Mighty Boosh, but without the funnies.
If you liked Luke Haines’ work up to now, this is unlikely to disappoint. Unlike many other pop musicians, Haines deserves to consider himself an artist. His is a highly idiosyncratic sensibility and his work is increasingly unconcerned with accessibility. If you’re in on the joke, you’ll remain so, but if you’re not, you’re not exactly invited to hop on board. On The North Sea Scrolls, Haines stays true to his own brand of dark, surreal mystification and harnesses two other individual talents to create something that some will find highly satisfactory.