In a just world, disaffected children everywhere would be shouting “Do you like the Monkees?” ala the album’s title song and Alpha Industries would be using “Bomber Jacket” in an ad campaign.
To those who know who he is, Luke Haines can do no wrong. When even someone’s music criticism is peerless, this much must be true. To the non-fan, fully comprehending the Haines mystique is both elementary and a conundrum. Haines is a pop songwriter through and through, yet with a vision as singular as his songs are irresistible. Take, for example, Baader-Meinhof, one of a couple of masterpieces in his oeuvre. A flawless pastiche of funk, exotic instrumental flourishes and Beatles references, the album largely concerns ‘70’s terrorist collective the RAF (Red Army Faction). Probably a bit too niche for the average listener of pop and rock, but the overlooking of Haines’ work -- whether it be in the Auteurs, Black Box Recorder, or under his name -- continues to be a huge blindside from those who continually eulogize the ‘90s and (please forgive the huge genre generalization) the indie pop community alike.
Haines’ latest, Smash the System, puts a pause on his almost yearly run of concept albums. With no overarching thread, it sounds at times like an overview of his latter day output, while in softer moments it echoes the airier numbers which comprised Achtung Mutha, a bonus release that accompanied Haines’ last non-concept album, 2009’s 21st Century Man. Yet Smash the System never feels like a retread. I could go on about how it’s really an expanding of ideas or certain sounds, but really, the bottom line is this: it’s a fun, uber-Hainesian collection of idiosyncratic pop tunes that you’d be remiss to erase from your online music library.
The first mutational highlight of Smash the System is opener “Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain is Missing”. Written from the viewpoint of Meinhof’s brain (which really did go missing from a German laboratory), it continues the subject matter of Baader-Meinhof and repurposes it via the analog synths Haines took a liking to during his last release, 2015’s British Nuclear Bunkers. It sounds like a theme tune to a television show about the misadventures of Meinhof’s brain, and I mean that in the absolute best way possible. “Black Bunny (Not Vince Taylor)” has the Suicide-esque feel of “Drone City”, an Alan Vega / Martin Rev tribute of sorts that appeared on 2014’s New York in the ‘70s. Although the song is reportedly about a mythical, Ziggy Stardust-style rock star, it could probably be forgiven if one were to presume the song was about an actual bunny rabbit. This is someone who released an album called Rock and Roll Animals, after all. It matters little if the listener is familiar with these two releases. The song is a blast thanks to Haines’ inherent gift for producing catchy melodies. Prefacing every noun in the first verse with “rock ‘n’ roll” would threaten to push a song into parody territory but Haines is ultimately too dextrous and contrary for that sort of thing.
Smash the ystem carries a strain of pastoral, Hammer horror /Wickerman-style occultism which is nicely represented via the album’s middle tracks. The subversive loveliness inherent in Haines’ career gives “Ritual Magick” and “Bomber Jacket” the right dose of eeriness (and who wouldn’t love a song that begins “my baby loves ritual magick”?). “Power of the Witch” is an electro stomp invocation in which Haines spits out amazing line after amazing line, “a girl with a rare blood disorder / rare, but nothing fancy” being a personal favorite.
But the album’s arguable coupe de grace is “Marc Bolan Blues”. It’s the best subversive homage Haines has written since the Auteurs tune “The Rubettes”, a number which is arguably the best coming of age song ever. I sort of doubt anyone has ever wondered, “why hasn’t Luke Haines ever written a song about oral sex in the style of T.Rex?” but after one listen you’ll be wondering where such a thing has been all your life. Trust me.
Will Smash the System propel Haines to the mainstream? In a just world, disaffected children everywhere would be shouting “Do you like the Monkees?” ala the album’s title song and Alpha Industries would be using “Bomber Jacket” in an ad campaign. But it’s not, so the few of us who are privy to Haines’ talents can treasure this return to form while the oblivious majority of the pop music-listening world subconsciously pines for something better.