We like the idea of writing songs for disturbing, disturbed people”. So say ex-Auteurs frontman Luke Haines and Jesus and Mary Chain alumnus John Moore, the multi-instrumental backbone of Black Box Recorder.
The band’s 1998 debut, England Made Me, provided ample evidence of a brilliantly unhealthy lyrical preoccupation with varieties of trauma, tragedy and damage as well as with the kinds of banal, quotidian woes and ennui that Morrissey put on the pop map. Having negotiated cheerful, inviting titles like “Girl Singing in the Wreckage”, “Hated Sunday”, and “It’s Only the End of the World”, listeners found themselves in a world of grim, kitchen-sink realism with an intelligent pop soundtrack. Key to the formula were the emotionless, clinical vocals of Sarah Nixey, singing songs of dysfunction, death, boredom, despair and wife-swapping. The first single, “Child Psychology”, contained the tough-love admonishment “Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it”, and was promptly banned from UK airwaves.
The recipe is a familiar one on The Facts of Life. Suggesting a musical hybrid of Portishead, Air, Mono and Saint Etienne, Black Box Recorder continues to trawl the gloomier and seamier sides of life. The band’s sensibility and attitude remain unmistakably English, its songs steeped in a tradition of comfortably ironic, darkly humorous, self-mocking misery. The Facts of Life is the sound of post-war Britain-as-usual, bearing up and soldiering on after the bursting of the Cool Britannia bubble and the broken promise of New Labour.
Like England Made Me, The Facts of Life makes for compulsively uneasy listening, owing to its reliance on a simple, basic contrast: the breezy, addictive pop surface of the songs and Sarah Nixey’s beautiful vocal melodies are generally at complete odds with the content of the lyrics, which is at times harrowing. (And therein lies the comic thrust of the album.) The success of The Facts of Life hinges in large part on the contribution of Nixey, who comes across as the evil twin of Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell. While her vocals are often breathy and honey-coated, she’s also capable of the aloof iciness of Nico, frequently combining the two registers within the same song to sublime effect. Her most withering vocal deliveries seem to be directed at masculinity, in both its nascent and full-blown stages.
The best example can be heard on the standout title track, which bears an uncanny resemblance to All Saints’ “Never Ever”, albeit through a trip-hop filter. The choruses are rendered with exquisite, sugary vocals, but the body of the song is another story. Nixey appears be reading—in exactingly proper, scientific tones—from The Annotated Guide to Male Sexuality and Socialization (With Full Color Photographs). As she methodically and dispassionately charts the horrors of puberty and adolescence, it’s rather like listening to someone broadcast your cringe-inducing private memories to the world at large. On “The Art of Driving”, she trades deadpan (automotively related) innuendo with Moore. To the accompaniment of a sparse, echoing beat, she consistently cuts down his sexual advances. At the same time, she fleshes out the song in a voice that’s nothing but sweetness and light.
Listening to tracks like “Weekend” and “May Queen”, in particular, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Saint Etienne. While Black Box Recorder builds a similar retro sound around rich melodies and female vocals, the likeness also manifests itself in the way that the band recycles British pop culture references. Playfully nodding at Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the chorus of “Weekend”, for instance, draws on precisely the kind of cultural coordinates that inform the music of Saint Etienne. Additionally, the subtly motorik “The English Motorway”—Black Box Recorder’s answer to “Autobahn”—uses the thoroughfare in question as a metaphor in dissecting a failing relationship, much as Saint Etienne did on “Like a Motorway”.
But of course, Black Box Recorder are not copyists and their sound is far from derivative. Haines, Moore and Nixey hold up a noir mirror to the sound of Wiggs, Stanley and Cracknell. Although Black Box Recorder and Saint Etienne both specialize in pastiche renderings of British ‘60s girl-pop a la Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw through a contemporary lens, Black Box Recorder completely empty their version of any of the glamour associated with that model. Black Box Recorder’s variant differs markedly in that it conceals a wry, weary cynicism, its kitschy bittersweet songs leaving a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.
Sometimes that bad aftertaste comes simply from a focus on the brutally mundane. With its title playfully alluding to Roxy Music’s “Street Life”, “Straight Life” concerns a milieu that’s quite the antithesis of the hip, glam world of the early ‘70s chronicled by Bryan Ferry—namely, grotesque middle-class domesticity and the repressed, dead-end existence of Philip-Larkin-type Englishness. The insistence of a dull, metronomic drum-machine beat throughout the song perfectly translates the colorless monotony of its subject matter.
However, things get truly unsavory on “Gift Horse”. Despite its wholly un-sinister floating melodies, it seems to deal with John Christie, one of the nation’s most infamous mass murderers, who was hanged in 1953. With its dreamy atmospherics, “The Deverell Twins” goes back even further in history as Sarah Nixey takes a swim with two boys who drowned in the River Thames in 1886.
Still, The Facts of Life isn’t all gloom and doom. The Air-meets-Serge-Gainsbourg number, “French Rock ‘n’ Roll”, is a heartwarming little song about the redeeming power of music. Sounding like Jane Birkin on “Je t’aime”—especially during the chiming, la-la-la choruses—Sarah Nixey tells the hilariously improbable tale of a woman brought back from the brink of suicide by, of all things, French rock ‘n’ roll.
Its Gallic flavor notwithstanding, The Facts of Life serves up a wonderful slice of traditional English miserablism. Like Pulp and Blur, Black Box Recorder has mastered a pop culture aesthetic inextricably linked to the post-war decline, one that turns complaining about how dreadful everything is into a supremely ironic, comic art form. Even more ironically, Haines, Moore and Nixey may think they’re critiquing the contemporary socio-cultural landscape, but what they’re doing is absolutely symptomatic of it. Insofar as its music displays that same ambivalent relationship with the horrors of everyday English life, the band perpetuates the very culture on which it purports to comment. So, as Morrissey might ask, is that joke funny anymore? I still think it is. After all, England made me too.