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We’re in a buyer’s market for living, breathing jokes these days: Reality TV offers 30 or so a month, there’s that whole gubernatorial-recall thing out in California, and Stryper is touring again. So why in the hell is supposedly arch synth-pop trio Black Box Recorder trifling with such has-been targets as Princess Diana and Andrew Ridgeley? Granted, the band is from London, but it’s not as if Britain lacks a constantly renewed supply of ridiculous people of its own, y’know? And it’s got plenty of perennials, too: Take Tony Blair, for instance, or the somehow still-tabloid-worthy Bobby Gillespie.
Or, for that matter, Robbie Williams, who once told The Face about how he accosted George Michael and told him that he was hoping to be “the next Andrew Ridgeley.” “Don’t take the piss out of Andrew,” Michael quietly told him, and it’s still good advice: By all accounts, Ridgeley is leading a comfortable existence in a small town in Cornwall, where he lives with his wife, Keren Woodward, who was in Bananarama. (Hey, I’m not saying anything.)
But Luke Haines, the better known of Black Box’s two songwriters, is not the type to take advice from anyone. He’s always made it clear that he considers himself smarter than the rest of us good little sheep. From his ’90s Britpop outfit, the Auteurs, to his 1996 electronica side project, Baader Meinhof, to this group, Haines’ charm has always been his smarm, whether he was making fun of ethnic loverboys in “Lenny Valentino,” slackers in “Junk Shop Clothes,” or the U.S. military in “Mogadishu.” Yet Haines’ wit has rarely been as cutting as his concepts: “New French Girlfriend,” the Auteurs’ best song, basically repeats the title over and over until it seems trenchant. “That’s the price of success,” Haines eventually adds in his weary tenor, by way of which we’re supposed to gather that he isn’t successful, and people who are successful are shallow.
That’s why Black Box’s first two albums, 1998’s England Made Me and 2000’s The Facts of Life, were pleasant surprises. Teaming up with ex-Jesus and Mary Chain drummer John Moore and vocalist Sarah Nixey somehow channeled Haines’ acidity into critiques of class, consumerism, and gender roles that actually resonated with us regular folk. The title track of Facts of Life even landed in the British Top 20which probably had less to do with the cold eye its lyrics cast on teen intercourse than with its bright Eurodisco sound and singsongy, Nixey-sung chorus.
So I’m willing to wager that the reason the new Passionoia is such a buzz-killing bore is that Haines took over while Moore and Nixey were planning their recent wedding. The cover shows Nixey in a bikini, sunning herself and ignoring a dead body in the water; Moore and Haineswho resembles Klaus Kinski more and more as the years flit bysit on the other side of the pool drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes. So far, so good, right? As usual when Haines is running things, though, that visual joke is about as cutting as the album gets. The image posits the band as louche provocateurs, lazily swirling their pinkies in their bubbly and effortlessly winging devastating one-liners across the water, but there’s nothing on Passionoia that comes close to delivering on this promise.
Opening track “The School Song” begins with a fake football chant, after which Nixey, in the persona of a sadistic educator, runs down a list of common educational traumas: getting dressed down for being late, getting dressed up for swimming class, and so forth. “Thank you so much for gracing us with your presence/…Wipe that idiotic smile off your face,” she intones like a down-market dominatrix. “You lot need a bit of toughening up/…Get undressed/You’re going in.” And in case you missed the jokes, the chorus consists of “This is the school song” sung repeatedly.
Of course, there’s no way that you’ll miss the jokes, telegraphed as they are with often fogeyish abandon. Haines & Co. view technology with the same attitude that led to the nadir of cloistered-rock-star unfortunateness, Lou Reed’s “My Red Joystick”: They know it’s important, but they don’t totally understand itand they think it’s rather suspect, too. Passionoia inserts tech references with all the grace of a teenage boy fumbling with a bra hook. On “British Racing Green,” Nixey solemnly notices that “The satellite dish brings/Entertainment to our home” and issues non sequiturs such as “They sent a virus to my dream/That wiped the hard drive/British racing green.” Elsewhere, there are references to sending text messages, MIDI, and checking e-mail, all delivered by Nixey in a breathy coo that runs the gamut from ironic whisper to ironic whispery keen.
But imbecilic references are one thing, and imbecilic songs are anotherwhich brings us to the sloppily spelled “Andrew Ridgley,” Black Box’s tongue-in-cheek tribute to the quintessential second banana. Nixey does her best to establish her bona fides as a member of what songwriters Haines and Moore clearly consider the younger generation”I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer/I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums”but it quickly becomes clear that any love her character shows for Ridgeley is a product of her upper-class upbringing. In Britain, this means she’s about to get her comeuppance. “Daddy lost everything,” she whispers sadly. “Our beautiful house/His beautiful sports car/His beautiful wife.” To give the whole thing some based-on-real-life heft, she then tells us, “This is Sarah Nixey talking/…I’ve got to tell you what I know to be true.” Yes, but it’s not Sarah Nixey writing, and never does she come across as anything but a handy puppet for her two men.
The same could be said for the music on Passionoia, a competent pastiche of Eurovision-style pop and Pulp-style show tunes, ever so subtly varied for such predictable nonskewerings as “The New Diana,” “Being Number One,” and “Girls Guide for the Modern Diva.” Sure, it helps to underscore what little there is of Black Box’s message: rich people bad, technology suspicious, pop culture stupid but irresistible. But it really doesn’t sound appreciably different from anything Saint Etienne or late-period Everything But the Girl has pulled off much better. And at least those bands are a bit of fun: Who wants to listen to happy music that makes you feel bad? Or, in this case, mildly annoyed?
When Haines and Moore were growing up, bands like the Normal were singing about a burgeoning technological dystopia, a place where television antennae would be implanted into people’s arms. It’s a certainty that in another 25 years, Passionoia is going to sound just as dated and ludicrous. And that’s why the joke is ultimately on Black Box Recorder: As a self-styled puncturer of so many of our pop-cultural balloons, it’s taking such things far more seriously than anyone else. CP