The very tips of my fingers are tingling – New Wave is that good.
Over-excited people will tell you anything. For instance, they will tell you about an album where every song is so brilliant that you can’t pick a favourite. A seedless watermelon, a congregation of perfect Christians. I’ve rarely felt that way. Even on a record as blindingly perfect as Paris 1919, I find the slightly stronger title track and the slightly weaker “Macbeth”. You always choose sides. Highway 61 Revisited is fantastic, but isn’t “From A Buick 6” not quite on a par? The Dreaming is a masterpiece, but “Leave It Open” is from a different planet altogether. Etc., etc.
However, this time I just don’t know. New Wave is where I’m ready to wrap a blindfold around my face and throw a dart into space. Wherever it lands. The incredible tacet in “Show Girl”? The infectious riff of “Idiot Brother”? The intriguing minimalism of “Home Again”? I will accept anything.
There was nothing to improve and nowhere to grow for The Auteurs. Luke Haines arrived frustrated, annoying, cynical and fully equipped with some of the best tunes outside those written by Forster and McLennan. There’s a line in one of his more recent songs, “21st Century Man” from 2009: “What do you do when you made your masterpiece? That’s what I did in the 90’s…”. It was not about Baader Meinhof and it was not about After Murder Park. It was about New Wave, The Auteurs’ debut album.
1993. The year that didn’t yet care for Britpop or know what it was. The year that saw Haines bitter and confused about narrowly missing out on The Mercury Prize (lost by one vote to Suede). That’s the closest the man has ever come to recognition. I’d compare the trajectory to that of Martin Amis in English literature. Somerset Maugham Award for The Rachel Papers, then long years of noble and partly self-imposed oblivion.
Stylistically, I’d say Robert Christgau offers an interesting reference point: Pet Shop Boys as a guitar band. It’s tricky and could paint a vulgar picture in a certain uncultivated mind (yes, we absolutely have to bring Morrissey into this), but it is also rather accurate. Or maybe it’s a bit like a cross between Pet Shop Boys and The Go-Betweens? Lush, witty, intelligent, charismatic, somehow unique. The 12 songs that make up New Wave are all distinct, fully-fledged creations that nevertheless flow seamlessly into each other. Lyrics full of poetry and precision. And Haines’ voice, registered halfway between hushed spite and snotty tenderness, loving to do that irresistible ‘chh/ahh’ sound that Pink Floyd did in “Matilda Mother”. Good musicianship, too, but the Cellist has not yet fully arrived, so it’s guitars, guitars, and more guitars. And occasional piano, so clever in the chorus of “Bail Out” and so delicate in the verses of “Junk Shop Clothes”.
New Wave is a masterclass in articulate songwriting. The tunefulness is truly staggering and, quite honestly, it puts everyone else to shame. Also, while Luke Haines had his style from the off, he certainly knew how to make this stuff varied enough to guarantee smooth listening experience. After the relatively heavy “American Guitars”, there will always be the gentle, acoustic “Junk Shop Clothes”. You’ll be fine.
It’s The Auteurs’ album, but it really is the brainchild of only one man. His personality fills this album like hot water fills a bathtub with a plug firmly in place. And the personality has proved to be so strong, talent so great that it was enough for a few more Auteurs albums, Black Box Recorder, solo years and an array of left-field side projects. New Wave, however, remains what it is: Luke Haines’ masterpiece. “I was all over the 90’s, I was all over in the 90’s”. Thankfully for all good people with taste, not really true.
P.S. Also, this review is not entirely irrelevant. Earlier this year, New Wave has been reissued with a number of bonus tracks and alternative cuts. They are absolutely indispensable if you are a fan of the style. And with the style this appealing, I can’t see why you shouldn’t be. Here’s a man who thought “Wedding Day” wasn’t good enough for an album. Here’s a man who made “Subculture” a hidden track. Listen to it, and tell me where it leaves all the claptrap that arrived one year later.