Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop
uke Haines shares a degree of commonality with the comedian Chris Morris. He, like Haines, is often characterized by darker material and has openly rejected contemporary media games. This conception is presumably based upon the disquieting Jam series and the airing of a one-off Brass Eye (the savagely accurate parody of investigative documentary reporting) that controversially focused on paedophilia. With Haines, the reputation stems from his acerbic portraits of life and an apparent taste for the unpleasant. At first glance, an album which runs the thematic gambit of serial killers, child molesters, and notorious racists isn’t going to change that a great deal.
Yet both men are done a grave disservice by their shorthand biographies. Morris enjoyed a radio career which delighted in mischievous glee and he carried an obvious sense of the absurd into the news-pillorying The Day Today, as well as providing a madcap turn as a crazed boss in the otherwise terrible “The IT Crowd.” This is conveniently forgotten by those who hope to maintain his status as an overlord of “dark” comedy. Likewise, Mr. Haines brings much more to his work than bad taste and squalor. For a start, he’s a funny guy. For a finish, he has pop sensibilities up the wazoo.
This much will already be known to devotees of his varied career—one that has stretched from Auteurs frontman to Black Box Recorder lyricist via a side-project about German terrorism to, finally, solo albums released under his own name. From the opening Euro-Disco beats of the title track to the brain-infiltrating “Can you feel the beat of my heart?” refrain, it’s clear that Haines hasn’t lost his ear for a hook. Nor has his taste for the obscure been dampened, as precisely what point (if any) the words are making seems to be buried fairly deep. It could simply be an extension of a previous bullet to the art world head, “The Death of Sarah Lucas”—but a little reference-digging reveals a mention of “Die Fahne Hoch,” the anthem of National Socialism. So perhaps it’s about Austria’s most infamous failed artist instead. Or maybe he thinks certain modern artists are worse than Nazis. Read into it what you will.
The comely twin sisters of catchy tunes and knowledge-testing snippets continue to skip gaily through the album park, hand in hand. Unbeknownst to these helpless metaphors, they are being constantly watched by a stained raincoat ... inhabited by a loveable stand-up comic. It’s a pretty screwed-up vibe. Take “Leeds United,” a song that unites 1970s Britain, football, the Yorkshire Ripper, and novelist David Peace (whose books also provide a link between those topics). It’s a marvellously observed pastiche of novelty football records, right down to the “crowd roar” pre-chorus and verses decorated with “sick as a parrot” cliché, given a glam-stomp coating and a twist ending about a notorious serial killer. By various degrees it can delight, confuse, offend, and educate. Crucially, when it’s through doing that, there remains a fine piece of music.
Others don’t quite manage to deliver their punchline. Returning to the opening parallels for a moment, the flawlessness of early Chris Morris works led to a touch of the Emperor’s New Clothes. After much soul-searching and pondering about the true meaning or targets of “Nathan Barley,” most concluded that it simply wasn’t funny. Yet for a while it earned a stay of execution. This was a Morris project, it must have hidden depths. He couldn’t simply be coasting, could he?
There is the danger of a similar effect occurring with the lesser lights of Off My Rocker. After much deliberation, including the possibility that it was a subtle dig at the Kaiser Chiefs, the realization dawned that “Fighting in the City” just isn’t that great. A plodding, mid-tempo tale of the kind of drunken violence that crops up in cities across our fair nation—it holds up a mirror to society, but reveals little. Likewise, the suitably Eastern mysticism-ified strains of “Secret Yoga” don’t really succeed as anything other than filler.
Elsewhere, however, the emperor is still resplendent in his finery. “Here’s to Old England” may starkly highlight his latest predilection for cramming as many different references into a single track. Po-faced national mourning, enforced patriotism, double-standards, and xenophobia all get a look in—as do innumerable other shameful aspects of Englishness. On much the same theme, “All the English Devils” adopts a Charleston vibe and delivers bon mots about bouncing bombs. Clean, bright production helps to ensure that the payload is as large as possible.
Whether dwelling on the demise of tragic boxer Freddie Mills or spitting out sarcastic jibes about the former hunting ground of Jonathan King, Luke Haines can be relied upon to deliver unpleasantness in a bleakly comic fashion. The odd misstep notwithstanding, Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop casts a withering gaze across the unpalatable dregs of life and undermines their power to shock and offend with the deft application of twisted absurdity and wit. Not to mention a hummable chorus. All together now; “Gary Glitter / Is a bad bad man / Ruining the reputation of the Glitter Band.” Just because it’s serious, doesn’t mean it can’t be funny.