Could it be magick? Luke Haines: ‘Smash The System’ reviewed

❉ Luke Haines remains as perverse as ever on his latest album, ‘Smash The System’.

Luke Haines is a rum old bugger, and every bit the English eccentric. Like fellow national-treasure-in-waiting Julian Cope, he’s bothered the charts at various points, before choosing to focus on increasingly esoteric projects, recorded under a variety of guises.

For the uninitiated, Haines was the driving force behind The Auteurs (their 1993 debut LP ‘New Wave’ was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, which Suede won, much to Haines’ chagrin), the wonderfully bleak Black Box Recorder (a goth St Etienne of sorts), the terrorist-themed Baader Meinhof project, and a raft of solo outings.

These have included a soundtrack to the film adaptation of BS Johnson’s novel ‘Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry’, along with multiple concept albums – from the apocalyptic synthscapes of ‘British Nuclear Bunkers’, to a Lou Reed and Suicide-obsessed LP about the 1970s New York underground, and a celebration of old-school wrestlers such as Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. As you do.

He’s also released a ‘Best Of’ comprising orchestral reinterpretations of his career to date entitled ‘Das Capital’ (the record label having inexplicably rejected his original suggestion of ‘Mein Kampf’) and, just in case we hadn’t quite caught the cut of his jib, the Outsider Music project, where fans could order one-off CDs, recorded specifically for them, with bespoke artwork.

As well as the above, he’s found the time to publish two memoirs (the first of which, ‘Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall’, is a marvellously bitter account of the mid-90s), and inspired an odd, Stewart Holmes-esque novel, ‘Truth And Lies In Murder Park’, which physically manifests his lyrical obsessions.

Over the years, Haines has created his own micro-mythological world; a private lyrical language taking in 1970s Britain, power cuts, political unrest, paedophiles, glam rock, serial killers, mental illness, kids’ TV, the class system, Englishness and Paganism (he must have been seriously miffed when Radiohead did their Camberwickerman video forBurn The Witch earlier this year).

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Clouded in ironic nostalgia for a time that never was, his songs tend to come served with more than a soupcon of sardonic wit and none-more-misanthropic humour; a particularly spiteful example being the Britpop-baiting revenge fantasy of Auteurs track Tombstone (“Taking out the garbage at The Columbia Hotel / No one gets a ticket back from crippletown”).

Haines’ wilfully perverse output has become a tad trying of late, however. Releases such as ‘Rock And Roll Animals’, the ‘micro opera’ ‘Adventures In Dementia’ and the aforementioned ’91/2 Psychedlic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early 80s’ have veered into self-parodic territory – so it’s a relief to see him drop the high-concept gimmickry for latest release ‘Smash The System’.

It’s a return to form in more ways than one. Opening track Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain Is Missing revisits both the sound and subject matter of career highlight ‘Baader Meinhof’, while Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski & Me (a none-more-Hainesian title) follows a similarly squelchy dark funk template.

Elsewhere, the title track (seemingly a condemnation of fairweather political protesters; snark for snark’s sake, if you will) echoes the wonkypop style of ‘Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop’ from 2006, while the more subdued, pastoral tone of 2009’s ’21stCentury Man’ is resurrected for Bomber Jacket, the occult-themed Ritual Magick and Cosmic Man – a semi-psychedelic number depicting a quasi-mystical comedian in “Nora Batty’s stockings” (which may or may not be about Russell Brand). This track is preceded by a snippet named Cosmic Man (Intro), which uses flute and a Keith West-style kids’ chorus to charming effect, creating what could be the theme to an imaginary children’s TV series, lost down the back of a sofa in 1976.

The hauntological ‘Children Of The Stones’ vibe continues with Power Of The Witch(featuring vaguely unsettling, rasped lyrics inspired by scenes from Ben Wheatley’s ‘Kill List’), while, this being a Haines elpee, we get a trio of tracks celebrating (if not pastiching) figures from pop’s past – namely British rock’n’roll also-ran Vince Taylor, The Incredible String Band and Marc Bolan.

Album closer Are You Mad? is a particular highlight, combining Haines’ nastier side (“Are you mad like Uncle Terry, or are you mad like Mum? Flapping like a flip-flop while your stitches come undone”), an obligatory mention of darts, and a laugh-out-loud, apropos-nowt chant of “Spaghetti hoops, spaghetti shapes, Alphabet Spaghetti!” – bringing to mind Gene Hunt from ‘Life On Mars’ declaring “It’s 1973, almost dinnertime. I’m avin’ ‘oops”.

Smash The System – with its wry cover art featuring Morris dancers leaping in the air, hankies ahoy – both re-treads familiar ground and expands the Haines universe, while the recycling of sonic styles from previous albums gives it an odd sense of a career overview. Overall, however, it’s his strongest release in many a year. What he does next is anyone’s guess, but if there’s an opening for composer-in-residence at Scarfolk Council, he should probably apply.


❉ Luke Haines: ‘Smash The System’ was released by Cherry Red Records on 7 October 2016.

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