While it might seem as if his main occupation is taking Trump-like to Twitter to spit bile at Britpop also-rans, Luke Haines is a musician by trade. And if 2015's bold, brave, and barmy British Nuclear Bunkers was a step in the right direction at agitating listeners in just the right ways, some other recent releases have not been so successfully realized. And that's a nice way of saying I don't want to hear the genius-bloke from Black Box Recorder singing about woodland animals. Well, things are looking up in Haines-land 'cause Smash The System! drops this coming Friday on Cherry Red Records. The record, his best since 2009's 21st Century Man, is a sinister affair that recalls bits on that fine Baader Meinhof album from so many decades ago. The man has aged but he's still capable of snarling with the best of 'em.
Stylistically and thematically, opener "Ulrike Meinhof's Brain is Missing" owes much to that prior Baader-based masterpiece of Haines', while the lovely-and-disturbing "Ritual Magick" nods in the direction of the subject of one of the best B-sides from The Auteurs ("Kenneth Anger's Bad Dream") in tone and the Anger-esque spelling of the title. The acoustic guitars in "Power of the Witch" may not be the usual implements of punk rock but this one is a bunch of bad vibes set to tape and not just a (sonic) middle finger to the middle classes. Proving that the downright wrong isn't simply the provenance of those who practice the chords from the Class of '77, Haines unravels his ramblings here with subdued, yet malicious, intent. "Bomber Jacket" sounds like a leftover from 1999's How I Learned to Love the Bootboys and that's meant as a compliment, while the superb "Marc Bolan Blues" serves up the brand of faux-glam stomp that Luke perfected so well on earlier Auteurs releases. Similarly, the title cut makes quite excellent modern indie-pop out of the kind of foundations found in early Gary Numan and Cabaret Voltaire singles. If Haines is not as cornball as the former, nor as truly revolutionary as the latter could be, he's at least gamely enjoying himself here without over-extending his scope beyond his many strengths as a songwriter and performer. Ambitions lowered a bit, Haines lets the best tracks on Smash The System! succeed through a string of references to earlier high points in his recording career. He's found a way to play to his talents here without diminishing any of the bitterness found in his best compositions.
The overall effect on Smash The System! is similar to what we got in early 1989 when Lou Reed dropped New York; there was nothing entirely new there, and certainly a lot that was a sort of cartoon-y version of earlier triumphs, and yet, the product was supremely listenable and a whole lot of fun in all the right ways. Now, "fun" isn't a word that one thinks of with any Luke Haines project but, yeah, indulging in his near-whispered psuedo-rants is a delicious pleasure. When he's at the very top of his game ("The Upper Classes", "Unsolved Child Murder", "Future Generations"), Haines manages to turn his rage at the more successful around him into something one can groove to and sympathize with. That the pleasures of his particular brand of songwriting are so hard to describe should illustrate how unique he truly remains as a performer. And on this record he has, like Lou Reed before him on New York, succeeded in making a familiar bag of tricks sound fresh and invigorating.
On Smash The System! Haines is very nearly working at his peak again and this long-time fan is supremely happy with the results. As the rain beats down on the windshield of my car as I look out at a string of tail-lights in the rush-hour traffic ahead of me, I'll reach for this one to spin in my whip. I'll play it and wish ill upon the world, whispering these lyrics to myself as Haines, almost bitter that he's survived so many phases of Britpop in the United Kingdom, rasps over a glammy hook.
[Photo: Cherry Red Records, uncredited]