(http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/haines.htm is the introduction here, though someone else wrote it.)
See, I think the man's a genius. That's why I was so disappointed with the last Black Box Recorder album, because it was a load of sneery "ironic" sugared-pill bollocks in which Haines was hardly heard but you had the alarming impression of him sounding pleased with himself, aware that the stupid little pop kids were buying it blind. Worse, it seemed like a typical late 90s no-one-cares-any-more pop shot at the exact moment that people seemed to be looking for something more. Not a smart move. He looked to have retired hurt.
So, he returned this scared summer with two albums in one go, The Oliver Twist Manifesto (his own record subtitled "What's Wrong With Popular Culture" and accompanied by a proposal for a week-long National Pop Strike) and Christie Malry's Own Double Entry (soundtrack to a film about a lone terrorist who takes revenge on everyone and everything, starting by scratching the paint off expensive cars and climaxing with the death of thousands of people: the phrase "wish fulfilment" comes painfully to mind at this end).
Haines has become so self-referential that it's as though he and his works are about to fall in on each other (something in me thinks, ever since at least How I Learned To Love The Bootboys, he's wanted to convey precisely that impression). So he begins The Oliver Twist Manifesto with "Rock 'n' Roll Communique No.1", featuring a kind of high camp girls' choir intoning "... Don't like to talk about it" from "Unsolved Child Murder" off After Murder Park, and the following "Oliver Twist" and "Death of Sarah Lucas" are quite as self-important and vengeful, respectively, as anything from that phenomenal new Jay-Z album. The impression given is something akin to a stunted, disabled-at-birth English take on hip-hop's bombastic album intros, and it's here that Haines sounds his most effectively driven and motivated by his loathing-of-everything schtick. But - crucially - it's often not where he's at his best. "Never Work" may be essentially a manifesto for his much-vaunted National Pop Strike, but it's a beautiful song, full of resigned determination to escape and transcend, and sometimes that's worth all the bile in the world, just as the sweet and pretty-sounding "The South Will Rise Again" on Bootboys knocked plenty of the guitar-heavy tracks on that album into a cocked hat.
"Discomania" is Haines's new conceptual basis - a Kim Wilde and Tallulah Bankhead-alluding rough portrayal of the way of life of a certain perpetually ignored English pop underclass, picking up directly where Bootboys left off - and the finest incarnation of this recurring song across both albums is that on The Oliver Twist Manifesto, with its shifting rhythms and computer game sounds: it's basically the kind of skewed New Wave (no italics) and punked-up disco that Haines does so well (and it contains the phrase carrot cabbage winters, which says it all about those photos of the London smogs and people with bad teeth in long coats and hats). He really hits his stride, though, on "What Happens When We Die", effective and moving without ever hinting at sentimentality, though it's about as close to that concept as Haines will ever come. During the seque of "Christ", the epic "The Spook Manifesto" and "England vs. America" (Haines's recollection of his childhood dream of a less servile, less class-ridden society here is both poignant and hilarious, because you know he doesn't believe a word when the media say that that society has actually come about, but also because it's so ridiculously overdone that it almost sounds like an elegant joke at his own expense) you begin thinking that this is probably some of Haines's best, most emotionally mature music ever: he can just about stop himself from indulging in complete contempt for every aspect of his home country, and after a while the melodrama becomes part of the charm anyway.
But Christie Malry's Own Double Entry is the most interesting of the two albums, because the soundtrack format forces Haines to investigate new territory, related to his own private litany of English seediness and decay, but not quite his usual take on it. A rockier version of "Discomania" leads into, oh yes, "In The Bleak Midwinter" performed by the Winchester Cathedral Choir with Haines's own quasi-apocalyptic words ("If you piss on the altar / You're paying homage to the church") embedded on top. It could be appalling, a dreadful cheesy collision of worlds akin to the quasi-medieval middle section of Morrissey's "We'll Let You Know" (incidentally, can anyone truly believe that was still less than a decade ago?) but such is the beauty of the song itself, and the resonance of Winchester in winter in its strange official chill (ever been there? The '59 freeze-up here we come: almost unique in modern Britain), and the strange grandeur of it all, that it works, somehow, though I can't help thinking it shouldn't.
"How To Hate The Working Classes", though, you feel could never have failed to work: a classic slow-paced Haines semi-manifesto song in the vein of "Future Generation" and "Kenneth Anger's Bad Dream", it works because there's a real, if illusory, wide-eyed optimism here surrounding his usual tales of thwarted ambition. "The Ledger" and "Bernie's Funeral / Auto Asphixiation", which follow, are wonderful pieces of music which have me thinking that Haines's real mission may lie in the field of soundtrack and instrumental music generally, his final escape from the pop world he appears to so despise: tellingly, unlike most of his recent pop (or at least semi-pop) songs, you feel he genuinely loved writing them, and appreciated all the feelings they bring out. "Bernie's Funeral / Auto Asphixiation" especially - stunning English orchestral tragedy, Kenneth V. Jones turned inside out, Confessions of a Pop Group distilled - holds my attention so totally that I can't really bother for the following "Discomaniax", a return to Haines's favourite themes with a slightly unnecessary and superfluous Swinging Blue Jeans reference.
"Alchemy" and "Art Will Save The World" - two more pieces of instrumental Big Freeze - are a relief, and show the way forward, and Haines's cover / assassination of Nick Lowe's "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass" is, perhaps, the definitive and utter opposite of Louise's take on "Stuck In The Middle With You", one of those rare covers that is a kiss-off and final farewell to, a destruction, even a burial of an entire era and way of living. Hopefully no-one now will dare to cover a song to "take the piss" out of it, though I fear my hopes here may be too high. "Celestial Discomania" - a perfunctory summary of earlier sounds and lyrical themes clearly designed as a "poignant" play-out - and "Essexmania" - basically a few lines from "How I Learned To Love The Bootboys" the song set to a lacerating hard house beat - can't help sounding tacked-on, though "Essexmania" shows Haines's ability to pastiche other genres without sounding either amateurish or sarcastically ridiculing: it actually sounds like the sort of house you'd hear in a Romford or Southend club, and you get the feeling that Haines has some underlying respect for the people who go to those clubs and live that life. It's no coincidence that the almost self-parodic "England Scotland And Wales", while not a bad song in itself, seems terribly out-of-place here, and very weak compared to most of what surrounds it.
Haines has backed himself into a corner where his lyrics can startle but only rarely surprise. He is the only person in this country who could watch Granada Plus and Challenge TV in the middle of the night and write entire songs based around jokes on The Comedians from 1979 about Oldham Athletic FC in the context of the town's recent race riots, or about Anneka Rice's ability to recite an entire Betjeman poem about Bath from memory on Treasure Hunt from 1986, and elevate these concepts into dissertations on British stagnation and decline. He is both the only person mad enough to be capable of doing these things and the only person intelligent enough to be capable of doing these things. This is what is so valuable about him, but also what is so frustrating: the possibility that he might repeat himself to death. Thankfully, there are enough possibilities here to ensure that that need not happen.
"Discomania" should not be revisited. "The Ledger", "Bernie's Funeral / Auto Asphixiation", "Alchemy" and "Art Will Save The World" set a new ambition, a new target, a new direction. He'd be a fool if he didn't take that opportunity. All the evocation still there, all the excess bitterness left behind. The new dawn is there, Luke. Don't let those carrot cabbage winters get you down.
Robin Carmody, 21st September 2001