Reviewing a Luke Haines release is destined to put the critic at a disadvantage. No matter the magnitude of praise heaped upon it, we will never deem a release as ingenious as the mastermind behind the Auteurs and co-mastermind behind Black Box Recorder does. When the critic is an American, the disadvantages are even greater: as deft a songwriter as Haines is (and he’s one of the deftest that ever existed), there is no way most of us can fully relate to the 1970s UK working class experience. The closest Haines has ever come to succeeding in relating this period is “Leeds United”, in my opinion one of the best written songs of all time. In just under four minutes, Haines crystallizes an era that has taken authors such as The Damned United scribe David Peace five books to convey. What’s more, Haines does it with effortless humour and glam-rock bombast.
Haines’ latest release – Nine and a half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early ‘80s – is perhaps his most perplexing yet. As implied by the title, it’s a concept album on wrestling, packed with the customarily beguiling Luke Haines hooks and glam indie-pop harmonies. Haines has tackled the concept album before (see the before-its-time Baader-Meinhof, with its twisted pop songs on terrorism), but wrestling? While not as solid as some of those past conceptual dabbles, Nine and a Half … is a marvel all the same.
When embarking on a Luke Haines release, one would be wise to keep a guide on British 20th century culture handy. That isn’t to say Haines is exclusively for intellectuals and the anglophilic elite, it is just that his eccentricity and prickliness is on par with his masterful songwriting. For American listeners, it is easy to get caught up in impossible hooks as cultural references go careening over one’s head. While Haines can be taken as someone in vehement opposition to nostalgia, Nine and a Half … has a resignation about it, one that is perhaps enhanced by Haines recalling growing up watching wrestling with his (now ill) father in recent interviews. “Gorgeous George” in particular has a stately serenity, even if a threat of violence arises before the first verse is over.
Despite a less pronounced bite, Haines’ oddness and peerless songwriting prowess haven’t weakened. Just give something like “Inside the Restless Mind of Rollerboy Rocco” one listen and try not to be hoodwinked by its chorus, which makes gold out of an assertion of bad cafeteria food. Likewise, give “Big Daddy Got a Casio VL-Tone” a spin and try your darndest not to spend the rest of the day pondering the song’s ticky oddness.
Vocally, Haines’ delivery still feels like the aural equivalent of a pillow wrapped in barbed wire, but enough listening to the man makes one realize that there is no more appropriate method of singing. Like the spectacle of wrestling itself, the air of theatricality is undeniably present. As brilliant a persona as Haines’ curmudgeonly dandy one is, it is hard to believe a father and husband can maintain such an image 24/7. For all his railing against music critics in his autobiographies – Bad Vibes and Post Everything – Haines communicates with plenty of journalists via Twitter, after all. While not the first place to begin en route to a life as a Haines convert, Nine and a Half … assures us long-time fans that he is as masterful a subverter as ever.