Luke Haines – or to give him his full name, Luke Haines Fromtheauteursandblackboxrecorderandbaadermeinhofandtheorganiserofthenationalpopstrikeauthorandartist, is now up to his twelfth solo album…yet is still lumbered with historic musical and artistic baggage. This rather serves him right for being a smart arse.
After a run of concept albums, he loosens the reins here to furrow through burrows denied him in recent times, but here’s the thing – if anything, this feels more rounded and complete than the themed work, as well as feeling every bit as much as a concentrated journey through similar themes.
Smash the System is an opportunity for Haines to take stock – there are familiar themes which are revisited (terrorists; 70’s rock; a general dissatisfaction with people), as well as further explorations of his more recent lo-fi Casio-esque keyboard work, though coupled with particularly dirty guitar. Opener, Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain is Missing, is a gamesomely dark affair which postures as a sing-along ditty, the chorus’ refrain of “There’s a hullaballoo at the Stasi HQ”, however, probably not what will be sung in the nations’ playgrounds this winter. Though the whirling primitive synth sounds lean toward his recent British Nuclear Bunkers album, the chattering cockroach of his guitar work reveals a particularly spiky artist who has little concern for producing the expected Jools-friendly grown-up work and more about reminding us as to how he became one of Britain’s most important songwriters.
Black Bunny (I’m Not Vince Taylor), is a track only the very best of their type can muster – an ‘at ease’ vaguely dancey pop song which would ordinarily jar with the rest of his oeuvre but instead just reinforces that he can rattle out something essentially radio-friendly, ignoring the bizarre subject matter and underlying seeping darkness. Ritual Magick is the nearest there’s been to something immediately redolent of The Auteurs for quite some time. Luke’s in fine voice and the acoustic guitar has been augmented by yet more Bontempi, to eerie effect. There’s something of The Wicker Man permeating through the songs on this album – tracks lull the listener into a false sense of security, only to ambush them – a breathy chorus of “making the garden grow” isn’t allowed to settle before we’re informed of “blood on the roses” and that we’re now part of the garden, that “the creatures fuck on us” and “creepy crawlies hang off our leaves”. It’s enough to put Britt Ekland off her mead.
Power of the Witch is perhaps the track which best exemplifies the album – boisterous, unflagging, the appropriation of the Dark Arts, chewy lyrics which straddle funny and slightly alarming. Any song which begins with a growled “jack fuck!” gets the thumbs up but this is stellar stuff, crammed with disparaging “ughs” at the blandness of the masses, whilst black fuzz and wah-wah guitar usher in monastic incantations and a beast of a creation which is in all senses, Anger-y. Equally unsettling is The Cosmic Man (Intro), a school choir singing a short song asking “where he’s going”. The track it heralds is prime Luke Haines, plaintive yet arresting, with typically retrospective references to “Billy Connolly’s jokes from the 1970’s/Jim Davidson’s causal misogyny” – an easy fit on The Auteurs’ After Murder Park or How I Came to Love the Bootboys.
Back to the 70’s and then some, Marc Bolan Blues is almost too T-Rex, a chugging stomp which shakes off any remaining shackles by requesting you “open your legs/open your box/what kinda secrets have you got?”, it captures the pop brilliance of Bolan, whilst adding the odd post-60’s despair and sleazy undercurrents which are usually overlooked in chin-stroking BBC4 documentaries. Further celebrity guest spots are reserved for Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski and Me, probably the only song you’ll hear this year with the line “Ching-Chong Chinaman” delivered with a straight face, and even The Incredible String Band (“The Incredible String Band were an unholy act/they sound like a couple of weasels trapped in a sack”). They haven’t quite got the verve or needle-sharp stabs of some of the other tracks but they are, as the majority of the tracks are on this album, a much-needed bringing together of the Haines musical inventory. Truly, everything he’s ever done is in this album somewhere.
Excitingly, there’s no let up in the quality on show – Bomber Jacket is an almost tear-inducing paean to a coat and all its tribal assets, whilst lead single, Smash the System is a disgustingly catchy, vocorder-splashed Monkees call to arms, the absurdity highlighted by its morris dancing video. A reflective Are You Mad (“are you mad like Uncle Terry or are you mad like mum?”) concludes an album which is in many ways a landmark. It’s both a rallying cry to arms and a foot on the ball for the artist – having taken stock, he’s managed to distil nearly 25 years of venom and craft into a gnashing animal, angry not just at the state of the country but at the country it once was. Variously touching, hilarious and prescient, it’s an album which rather jolts you into remembering how easily we accept low standards, whether it be musically or socially. A thing of genuine wonder. Album of the year, ironically a phrase Luke will no doubt abhor.