For the final instalment in what has been described as a “psychedelic trilogy” the architect of The Auteurs moves away from the smokey working men’s club rough-housing of 9 ½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early ‘80s, sidesteps the anthropomorphic countryside romps of last year’s wonderful Rock n’ Roll Animals and veers way across the Atlantic to perhaps the most intangibly desirable time and place in the current collective consciousness. What he does when he gets there is precisely what you’d hope from the author of “The Rubettes” and “Unsolved Child Murder” – he seeks out his musical heroes and heroin(e)s and takes them on a peculiarly English trip to the underbelly of their existence.
Clear of his intention Haines begins with “Alan Vega Says”, populated with eerie chimes, strange vibrations, synth chills and programmed churns. Lyrically, Haines seems as much in awe of his subject as he finds him ridiculous. A mere mention of the Chelsea hotel incurs the attention of a heavenly choir, Elvis, Marilyn and Sharon Tate are name-checked, Haines himself is mocked (“I’m too lazy to write my own melodies/here’s a tune I borrowed from the TVPs”) and at least one truly great, hilarious yet empowering line is delivered: “If variety is all that you’re after/then get out of the church of repetition, man, because you’re interrupting a master”.
Haines’ attention rarely deviates from the deviants he obsesses over, his lyrical prowess put to effective work when describing the downtown scene on the title track – “Everybody’s gay or bisexual/a man called Jim getting experimental”. It’s almost childish; it’s certainly unsubtle and therein lays the charm. This is a game for Haines, these are notions and ideas to be toyed with, twisted and, occasionally, taken seriously, imbibed with passion.
It’s impossible to say if Haines whisper-spitting ludicrous platitudes like “She’s a rock n’ roll woman/It’s a rock n’ roll town” on the fuzz-buzz electronica of “Drone City” is a blustering cry from the guts or a haughty, mocking sneer on the lips. It would be a disservice to a writer of his reputation to think it anything other than both.
Vocal repetition is a key feature here – “Jim Carroll” for instance having the punk prince and vaunted author’s name chanted like a mantra throughout accompanied by an incongruous, crushing guitar line while on “Dolls Forever” (no, not Pussycat) a mantra becomes an actual religious incantation – “Shalom! Shalom! David Johansen” Haines cries, holding Morrissey’s favourite cross-dressing gutter-glamour guys up as high as his trembling arms can hold them with the almost feverish “Up in heaven/New York Dolls Forever”. That’s also the song that contains the gloriously incongruous line “Carry on camping/carry on rock n’ roll”.
This is where Haines is perhaps at his best – turning incongruity into entertainment and entertainment into something darker, less definable. On “Cerne Abbus Man” the dick of Dorset simply “swings his giant gland straight into Manhattan”, the most British of pagan icons going balls deep in New York’s harbour, “the original rude boy” who “Crashes into CB’s/gives Richard Hell the heebee-jeebees”. The chorus refrain of “Mythic motherfuckin’ rock and roll” depicts perfectly the balancing pole Haines uses to remain on the tightrope between the twin pitfalls of irreverence and idolatory. He then harks back to his last record, conjuring a bird (feathered) who gets frantic, sexually excited even listing places he and his companion could leave New York for…”Bournemouth…or Worthing…or Hastings…or EASTBOURNE…OH!” It’s absolutely bizarre, resolutely intelligent, playful, smug, psychotic. Who could ask for more?
”New York City Breakdown” digs further into the disparity between the UK and US – it’s a meth-addled hymn to mental collapse that debates the relative merits of geographically dictated psychological spin-outs (“It’s not a Home Counties breakdown” we’re assured) as Haines has a “screaming fit on stage in a stinking pit/dragging a crazy chick called Connie ‘round by her hair”. As synths squelch stupidly, ethereal harmonies float and a Cobain-like line is picked out he’s savouring every mucky moment as he cries “With a side of ‘slaw and hash brown/it’s a nervous fucking breakdown” which may well be the line of the album. It’s hard to say when there are so many sour-sweet gems to select from.
There are some dead ends here such as “Lou Reed Lou Reed” (how many times do you need to hear his name repeated?) and ‘Bill’s Bunker (a Burroughs tale from the point of view of the drugs? Seems so – and if that excites, tuck in) but there’s also hugely unsettling gear like “UK Punk” which is vintage Haines yet simultaneously unlike any of his other work. A surrealist narrative involving Sun Ra and “Holy Man” plays out over numbing, repeated, off-kilter sounds that feel pulled from flesh-eating Fulci scenes. It’s fucked.
We reach some kind of swirling summation/reiteration on closer “NY Stars” that revisits snippets from earlier songs, slots characters into alternative universe situations and generally crawls around in the used needles and spit generated by these sick, sensual heroes of the city’s ripped…arse.
Luke Haines has made another in a long line of remarkably interesting, unique records. His concerns are consistent and consistently bizarre, his delivery as unsettling as ever, the atmosphere he creates both bleak and battered – yet he’s still a man armed with tunes as well as wit, brilliance to match the bitterness; a new album that digs into the past, chokes it down and regurgitates it with a sly smile.