Has it really come to this? Have we finally reached the point where this outsider is lauded -- yet again -- with a box set? I mean, how did we get to the point where even solo Luke Haines needs an Uncut-magazine-style career overview? Maybe I am being too cynical about things.
The new 4-CD box set Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017, out Friday on Cherry Red Records, makes a compelling case for the greatness of Haines as a solo artist. That he even has enough material is a testament to his longevity in an industry he largely shoots flaming arrows at. And that so very much of this succeeds at all is significant as, frankly, I don't think anyone's going to offer up a very good 4-CD set from Noel Gallagher's solo years, you know? But while that cat is still trying to recapture the glories of some point in his past, Luke Haines has moved on. This is not to say that he's forgotten The Auteurs and how absolutely superb they were, nor that he's diminishing the perfection of those Black Box Recorder recordings, but, rather, that he's made peace with himself as a solo artist, and a solo artist who's taken some real chances in the last 16 years.
Disc 1 wisely serves as a sort of "best of" of Haines' output early in this century, favoring tracks from albums like the pop-leaning The Oliver Twist Manifesto from 2001, or the sleek austerity of the same year's Christie Malry's Own Double Entry, represented here by "England Scotland and Wales", one of Luke's finest numbers. By 2006, Haines had sort of refined his shtick as a solo artist in order to offer up the solid-but-not-entirely-inspired Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop. Make no mistake, there were some remarkably good tracks on that record (the near-anthem of "Leeds United", or the sinister strut of "Bad Reputation"), but none of them seemed to hit the peak that certain late-period Auteurs songs had hit, for example. Still, if Haines wasn't exactly on fire here, he was making astonishingly consistent work and the tracks on the end of Disc 1 make up a nice reminder of that.
Oddly, Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 splits up the selections from 2009's 21st Century Man between Discs 1 and 2. But an unexpected result of that is that the track "Suburban Mourning", kicking off the second CD here, serves as a sort of indicator of a shift in Haines' solo work, while also acting as a nod to past, similar glories as echoes of "Unsolved Child Murder" and "Goodnight Kiss" abound here. Elsewhere on Disc 2, there are a few cuts from his truly-odd 2011 offering, 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s & Early '80s, with only "Big Daddy Got a Casio VL Tone" surprising after all these years. The record was not as successful as even the mainstream-eyeing Off My Rocker... but it was at bare minimum more essential than 2013's absurd Rock And Roll Animals. Whatever he intended by recording that record, Haines failed. The tracks seem silly and entirely inconsequential now with only "A Badger Called Nick Lowe" making any kind of dent in a listener's consciousness.
Disc 3 sees Haines right the ship a bit with a few surprisingly pleasant ditties from his New York In The '70s with "Lou Reed Lou Reed" and "Alan Vega Says" sticking out as more than just cheap nods in the direction of obvious influences. More significantly, Disc 3 of Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 shines a little light on the truly brave and risky British Nuclear Bunkers album from Haines. That the drone-y and noise-y record from 2015 is represented at all is something to be applauded as the release seemed to be Haines' ultimate kiss-off to an industry that never fully appreciated or deserved him. Before the rarities kick in, this box set highlights a few numbers from the surprisingly-strong Smash The System (2016) including the glam-y "Marc Bolan Blues" and the warped electro-pop of that album's title cut.
And, of course, the final disc here is the one that really and truly offers up the real rarities. Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 kicks off its final disc with "Black Sun", a cut from a teenage Haines' first band. Superbly unhinged, it is the sort of the ragged-and-raging indie-pop that this guy would pursue with a good deal more refinement later, first in The Servants and later in The Auteurs. Elsewhere on Disc 4 are a few previously-unreleased gems that should now be counted as some of the finest solo numbers Haines has ever offered. The lyrical "1963" and acerbic "Dandification" are just superb and they stand on their own as essential Haines cuts even if they are leftovers from an earlier, unfinished project of the artist's. There are a few BBC sessions here that accompanied 2009's 21st Century Man before we encounter the odd "Me and the Birds", a nice meditation on the opposite sex, or Luke's own place in their eyes, that is haunting and melodic, and then the smooth "Jeff Starship Superstar", a sonic and thematic cousin to "The Rubettes" from an older Auteurs record. Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 closes with 2 brief but excellent tracks: the stomping "68P In My Pocket" and the eerie "Rave", as perfect an ending track as Haines has composed since "Future Generation" from The Auteurs' How I Learned To Love The Bootboys very nearly 2 decades ago.
If I'm speaking negatively about a handful of songs here, I'm praising dozens more. If you've missed any part of the solo career of Luke Haines, Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 is essential. If you love everything he's done, you need Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 for Disc 4 and assorted other rarities. If you preferred The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder albums, you need Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 to see the error of your ways as some of this -- lots of this! -- is just as good and just as precisely composed and performed. Luke Haines has taken some risks, failed, succeeded, and persevered across a few decades. He's outlasted the wave that brought his talents to public consciousness in the first place 25 years ago, and stood firm against the allure of cheap nostalgia and revisionism. For those reasons, and for the sheer wealth of sublime chamber pop collected and presented here, Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 remains an absolutely essential purchase. Smart, sharp, cynical, sentimental (within reason), and aware, Luke Haines remains an artist worth paying attention to. Just maybe not on Twitter.
Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy Frenz - The Solo Anthology 2001 - 2017 is out on Friay via Cherry Red Records. For news of Luke Haines, wade through his Twitter feed, or, more simply, check out his official website.