PERMANENT RECORDS: YOUR UPSTART CHARGE IS COOL AND SMART
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
Tamarri better watch out, though. I'm catching him.
38. THE AUTEURS - AFTER MURDER PARK (1996)
Personnel: Luke Haines (vocals/guitar/harmonium), James Banbury (cellos/Hammon/korg), Alice Readman (bass), Barney C. Rockford (drums)
Producer: Steve Albini/ Label: Hut U.S.A./Vernon Yard
As I've said before, early on in the undertaking of this project, I came up with several different ways I wanted to approach writing specific entries. One was to engage in a dialogue with someone over an album. My immediate first choice was my good friend Christopher McQuain, who I have known for over a decade and attended many a concert with. We've debated music and movies in person all through our friendship, and at one point, I even proposed we somehow turn our disagreements over cinema into a column for a paper we were both writing for. Nothing came of it, but this piece here is a testament to my longstanding belief that the way he and I attack art is worth reading.
When it came time to do this, I told Christopher to pick a record. He came back with two choices, but it was clear this was the one he wanted. I was ready to bring my A-game, because as anyone who has read his own blog, Trappings, is aware, Christopher writes on a cerebral high wire with a dictionary as his only net. I did my best not to be left standing on the platform as he winged his way over the rope.
Jamie S. Rich: In thinking about talking about After Murder Park, I decided to cast back to what was going on at the time in music. The record came out in 1996, arguably the zenith of the Britpop phenomenon of that period, the year everything boiled over. This means that the Auteurs were writing and recording it probably sometime in 1995, when Pulp released Different Class, when Oasis and Blur had duked it out in the media, Radiohead came out of the one-hit-wonder bin with The Bends, and Supergrass and a host of other young bands had debuted. '96 saw the Oasis-side of things crystallize with the popularity of Ocean Colour Scene's Moseley Shoals, giving a leg-up to the dadrock contingent, and I know for both of us that year Suede's Coming Up was hard to beat. In general, the mood was up, it was bright, and the hangover that was on its way didn't yet feel like it was on its way (Blur would put out Blur next year, and surely there is no better signpost of everyone's fuzzy headedness). It seems like you and I were going to gigs constantly, and my entire paycheck was tumbling into the import bins so I could keep up with all the new music.
In the midst of all this debauchery strolled Luke Haines. The Auteurs hadn't released an album in two years, and that record had more in common with the pre-Britpop movement that the UK press dubbed the New Wave of New Wave than it did with what was to follow, and yet it also hinted that Haines could be part of that whole Carry On Campers vibe if he had wanted to be. He didn't want to, and to make sure we all understood that, he brought noisemeister Steve Albini in to record an album of menacing songs about killing. It wasn't the move anyone expected, and yet it was so exhilarating, so out there. It was like Luke Haines was sent as some avenging angel, crashing the party with a chainsaw, and he wasn't going to leave until all the drunken teenagers were dead.
Christopher McQuain: Yes, it's completely apt to place the album in the context of the frenetic, fecund, apparently endlessly proliferative Britpop scene of the time; remember the (apocryphal?) story about Haines demanding that Suede hand over the '93 Mercury Prize, which he felt should've been given to [the debut Auteurs album] New Wave? This was at the awards ceremony itself, no less, and that was well before the massive '95-'96 success of Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and a host of smaller players and wannabe bands. I don't know that the brilliance of After Murder Park can be attributed entirely to Haines's resentment at being a first-rate artist yet getting nothing but the crumbs when it came to album sales, but the album is decidedly what Haines claims: the "anti-Britpop." Whereas the cream of the Britpop crop (Suede and Pulp) made--in Coming Up and Different Class, respectively--for elegant and eloquent, bemused, and not entirely uncritical observers of the rush of the time and the joys of misspent youth--the drunken teenaged antics you mentioned--Haines ended up being oh, just a tad more opinionated and pessimistic.
That doesn't make After Murder Park any less "British" than the other records mentioned, though. It's just less about being of the time than staunchly against the time; if it seemed like a party in Cool Britannia as Blair was voted in and cheeky-smart lads 'n' lassies (well, Elastica, anyway) commandeered the pop charts, Haines was going to bring a much-needed sense of history to what it seems he saw as a very false and fleeting sense of optimism. That wake-up call came in the form of paranoiac, politically charged, contentious lyrical themes and tunes equal in catchiness and propulsion to the best Britpop of the time--with the crucial difference that these songs have their mufflers corroded all the way through, aurally speaking. Haines's powers of observation and anecdotally expressed emotion are equal to Brett Anderson's or Jarvis Cocker's, and certainly "Married to a Lazy Lover" and "Fear of Flying" are melodrama-queen epic ballads as glammed-up, class-ridden, and sordidly detailed as anything by Suede (or Bowie or Roxy Music, for that matter) fitting that description.
But the comparatively spartan sound of After Murder Park is a shock and a revelation: though he had worked with the Wedding Present and PJ Harvey, Steve Albini had made his name crankily producing platters by peculiarly American bands like the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and Nirvana's In Utero; his image was that of an angry, tough, even misogynistic pissed-off American Male (a not very deserved reputation, if his behavior when you and I met him briefly at a Shellac show was any indication). More to the point, for those of us (like me and, I assume, you) who experienced the English approach to pop music as the worldly, sophisticated, and much more literate and melodic rebuttal to the blandness and provincialism of testosterone-addled American grunge, the idea of a band like the Auteurs going for a "raw" sound would have seemed anathema. But Haines's lack of American-style macho insecurity--the kind of willingness to falsetto-ize and be epigrammatic ("I wanted glamour, not tragic rock 'n roll," "more hate mail through the door, didn't know that Sundays could be useful after all") that will still get you called a fag by boys who are more into Poison or Henry Rollins--not only survives Albini's muscular production but is somehow actually enhanced by it.
I don't know if it's the tension between the "American" sonic approach of Albini's production and Haines's after all very English songwriting that makes After Murder Park so unique. I do know that even beyond the marked increase in lyrical foreboding between this album and the preceding ones, the more conventional production of Phil Vinall never did the same kind of justice to the Auteurs' arsenal of instrumentation; Albini's drum and electric guitar sounds are famously "chunky" and unprocessed, but the acoustic guitar, violin, organ, mandolin, and French horn on this album are just as disorienting, almost spookily immediate. The xylophone isn't just "delicate"--it's a ballerina pirouetting atop a volcano. To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, who was speaking of his visual ethos of "not the photograph, but the photograph of the photograph," the album does not really have the "real" or "natural" sound we're tempted to attribute to it. Rather, it has a rigorous extremism, an excessiveness, a commitment to the hyperreality of each element--to each instrument sounding more like itself than itself, if possible--that is, in its way, more formal and accomplished than most of the other records of its place and time.
I actually first came to After Murder Park as an Auteurs virgin; I had read a Spin review that mentioned "Haines's Morrissey-weaned voice" and Albini (who I knew from Rid of Me), and was intrigued enough to buy a copy. I wasn't expecting something so towering, though; I hadn't realized the vast disparity between the attention paid to the band and the attention they were actually worth. I then worked backwards through the first two excellent albums, but this third is still my favorite. Nothing else they ever did sounds quite like it; I'd even venture that the singularity of this record extends well beyond their own catalog to the entire pop-music universe.
JSR: You're right in that the expectation of what Albini's normally skuzzy production would make the Auteurs sound like was scuppered by the final product. In keeping with the sense that After Murder Park was some kind of revelation, you hit the nail on the head when you said that the previous albums had not done the band justice, and that Albini's knob twiddling made it become all the more clear. It was almost like he walked in and discovered some settings that no one had noticed had been turned off and he just turned them on. It was like the Auteurs sound had been submerged, and after he opened the doors and released the ballast, After Murder Park bobbed to the surface, and once Albini let it out, there was no stopping Haines. Certainly the phantom limb of Baader Meinhof and the forthcoming sonic clarity of Black Box Recorder affirms that. There is a fury to the music, and it comes out in the orchestration of the strings. It's hard to tell if the violins are being strangled or we're hearing their strings being used to strangle someone else.
It's interesting, I didn't know you were new to either Haines or Albini at the time, because I always remember you as a fiend for both. I had the prior Auteurs albums and enjoyed them, but never quite as much as After Murder Park. Hearing the growth made me back up and re-examine where the band had come from, and I began to appreciate them more. Previously, my favorite Auteurs song had been "Lenny Valentino," probably because it had a certain swagger that the other songs didn't. Lenny could waltz into Murder Park and hold his own, you know? If you look at the iconography Haines was playing with prior to Murder Park--well, on New Wave's cover, the sole image is a mustachioed dandy, a little Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps too foppish for Britpop laddishness. This was followed by the battered and beaten cover star of Now I'm a Cowboy, the title being partially ironic and partially an acknowledgement that Haines was a maverick. The New Wave of New Wave fizzled before hitting the shore, and that did kind of leave him out on his own. After Murder Park is him with the knives out. There is no longer even a figure on the cover, merely a dangerous, foreboding landscape, a bombed-out forest. He could be lurking anywhere. (On that note, it should be noted that Haines was well ahead of Aphex Twin when it came to disturbing images of little children marked with his visage (though, to be fair, both are by Chris Cunningham). The cover to "Kids Issue," the sidebar single to Murder Park (the A-side is not on the album, making two of the three singles non-album tracks; only on a record this good could you leave off "Back With the Killer Again"!) and the inlay of After Murder Park was of Haines in a crowd of school children, all wearing the same grim mug as his.)
Albini was a perfect partner. I knew him as the scary guy behind Big Black and a notorious band I had never heard, Rapeman, named after a notorious Japanese comic I had never read. But Big Black's Atomizer was a soundtrack to my small-town high school life, as it was for so many others. Songs like "Kerosene" and "Jordan, Minnesota," where boredom breeds taboo reactions to one's lack of a life, providing an odd kind of hope. If I could burn this town down, I can walk away. There was a sense of Albini and Haines being kindred spirits.
I'm tempted to say that this is because they maybe had a similar perspective on modern life (and there, I just did). Luke Haines' work with all of his various bands could possibly be summed up as being about how human nature disappoints him--though I think that would end up casting the music in too negative a light. It would presuppose some kind of faith in his fellow man that I don't think he has. The continued failing of humanity is always exactly what he expects, and it excites him in some weird sado-masochistic way. He enjoys man's flaws, and he revels in them. The worse the world gets, the more pleasure it brings him. But the only affection he can lend his fellow man, the only action he can take on society's behalf, is to eradicate it.
This, in a sense, would usher us on to something else. There is a hint of the supernatural in the songs. There is some distrust of it, to be sure--the dismissive references to psychics in "Unsolved Child Murder" and the title track, the incendiary attack of "Buddha"--but then there is "Dead Sea Navigators," where we get the sense he will only share a toast to "those not with us," the people who have earned their stripes by passing through some dark ritual. "And our friends, though they are few...and what's left of your nerve will get you through/ from Brighton down to Eastbourne/ sea sick sailors getting tough/ but the dead sea navigators/ were made of stouter stuff." Brett Anderson and Jarvis Cocker write about traveling in small packs, as well, but they are huddling together to stand against those who would label them misfits. In the world of the Auteurs, no one else pulled you through, there is no helping hand, just the bar stool on the other side. Haines may be leading us to Murder Park, and the title suggests that there is something after it, but what lies beyond is the important question, and it's up to us to sort it out. He won't tell us, but in revealing that we can only live through death ("we are lying here/ waiting to be buried...losing contact with the dead"), he lets us in on the secret because he loves us "until the end." Not so misanthropic after all.
Having just seen V for Vendetta, I think there is a context for this kind of British sedition--that history you suggest. Isn't Haines invoking a spirit not unlike Guy Fawkes? Or perhaps something like the decadent wits who used the pen to tear at Victorian values, such as Oscar Wilde? There is, as you say, a sense of foreboding throughout his narratives. The hate mail through the door, the maid dealing in state propaganda, the notion that everything you say will destroy you--these are all indicative of a claustrophobic atmosphere, a grip we have to wrestle our way out of. If you compare being a dead sea navigator to being a "land lover--terrified by the land" or someone who has a "fear of flying...eating you whole," there is a sense that other people are living while restrained, breathing despite the ties that bind. In comparison, the rhyme in the chorus of "Fear of Flying" is made by invoking the antecedent to those people: "I have no fear of dying at all."
I suppose, for me, that's my doorway into what Haines does for me on a personal level. For all the academic explications we can give, in the end, what makes an album part of my personal library is some kind of connection to my own life. I see in the Auteurs an expression of the Garbo side of me that just wants to be alone, that isn't accepting that my fellow citizens have any genuine sentiment towards me, that believes life is gritting the teeth and carrying on, and in that, beating it. It's something I've tried to write about, to be sure, this escape, this release. I admire Haines because he's able to take it all the way to the bitter end before bouncing back.
Is there something about After Murder Park that you think speaks for you?
CM: Well, I can definitely relate to what you're saying about Haines's apparent misanthropy speaking to (and, in that singing-along-in-private way that seems silly but that all serious pop music lovers share, I think) for me--expressing things I feel in a way that's so right, so sharp, that I wish I'd thought of them. That's my litmus test for great lyrics: my own level of envy toward them. I do have this persistent feeling that life is in so many ways disappointing and unfair--even pointedly cruel--and a conviction that the sunshine in it is going to be heavily outweighed by the rain, that there's no guarantee that everything's going to balance out . . . and thus I have the privilege of really enjoying the fact that almost any song written by Luke Haines expresses and/or addresses those feelings in some way, be it sardonically absurdist-humorous or inflamed with resentment (or, at its best, both at once). If you relate to it, Haines's acknowledgment and reiteration of that omnipresent disparity between the kindness and fairness--dare we say "love"--we can visualize and the fear and loathing we actually feel and see around us is gratifying, liberating, and in a way reassuring: someone else resents the disparity, too, they understand it, and they're alight with creative inspiration over it!
But as you say, that misanthropy is balanced. I think what balances it is a kind of tenderness, which is probably the true root of most misanthropy--a generally good feeling toward one's fellow man that's been proven unfounded just a few too many times. On After Murder Park, that tenderness is manifest through the elegiac mournfulness--and yes, even that tenuous, agnostic invocation of the spiritual you mentioned, which may be an expression of the feeling of being haunted that's concomitant with these songs' themes of loss, grief, and memory--that suffuses the album, which is also something I relate to (I don't mean to aggrandize or saint myself when I say I grieve when other people suffer or experience loss, because that grief merely comes from my own identification--"How would I feel, how have I felt, when I've experienced grief or loss?"). The withering, erudite spite of "Land Lovers," "Buddha," and "New Brat in Town" are carried on an undertow of the kind of tributes to the bereft and forgotten you talked about, as heard in "Child Brides" and "Fear of Flying," and of course the missing-child pair of "Unsolved Child Murder" and "After Murder Park." For me, the thrust of "Dead Sea Navigators" is, to further your assessment, Haines's feeling practically vindicated that the ones really worth celebrating are doomed to obscurity--but how beautiful to be able to say, "Even in their heyday, no-one like them. . . 'cept for us"? That's solidarity, Luke Haines style! Even though "Tombstone" is a bilious, perfectly articulated attack on Haines's peers (the Britpop success stories ensconced in the Columbia Hotel, who he fantasizes bombing "Baader Meinhof style") that, like "New Brat in Town," uses an old-West metaphor for his dismissal of them, even here, amongst the misanthropic "everybody's gonna get it" lines, he still comes out with the regretful "I wanted glamour, not tragic rock 'n roll." It's in the singing, too--lines like "Throw yourself at the tide/I'll see you on the other side" (in "Child Brides") wouldn't quite mean all they do if his voice didn't break in that unexpected, spontaneous-seeming fashion; the way he sings "sack the maid" at the end of "Married to a Lazy Lover," after the raging roar has suddenly subsided, sums up through much more than just the words the endless waste and infidelity of an empty, subterfuge-filled relationship--that song casts a whole new light, as does much of Haines's work, on the old adage about the personal being political (or is it vice versa?). Speaking of which, I will have to see V for Vendetta to see about the Guy Fawkes connection, but I know Haines probably wouldn't mind being seen as some kind of instigator of subversive, contrarian dissent--his interest in such is pretty clear, both here and, of course, in a very pointed way on the Baader Meinhof side project. I like to think that the mug they sold on the Black Box Recorder tour--the iconic photograph of Lord Lucan from the "England Made Me" single sleeve on one side, the words "shame of the nation" on the other--were his idea.
I realize now, as I revisit the album and ponder its themes and execution, that it's much "darker" than I usually think of it as--but I have that thing where I think of albums or books or films in terms of their power, so even if it's "dark," it couldn't possibly be depressing if it has the power to move me or reach me in some deeply engaging or profound way. After Murder Park is such a triumph because it's grappling with things like death, failure, and crisis, things so irresoluble and burdensome in all of our human narratives--things usually not dwelled upon, perhaps for fear of getting mired (this is addressed in "Fear of Flying" with the beautiful and disconcerting lyrics "you may be wary of ghosts of the past/sexless and incorrigible in the dark").
The struggle to really ascertain and then to make peace (or at least live) with all that's been denied us, all that's been taken from us, and all we've lost--and again, any human life contains unacknowledged worthiness and unreconciled loss--is the ultimate project of After Murder Park; and even though nothing so simplistic or final as closure or reconciliation is on offer, this album is important to me just because it's willing to go so deep into the complexity of all those things and is miraculously able to come up with something that's possessed not only of coherence and clarity, but also of a passion that is finally, undeniably alive. Haines & Co. create a context in which "Sod this town and people's pity/Let's get on with the nitty-gritty" is simultaneously a deliciously snippy, satisfying fuck-off borne of profound pain and a life-affirming, transcendent credo.
JSR: Interestingly, as I read your response, my iPod shuffled over to "Black Celebration" by Depeche Mode, the title track to one of my top-five all-time albums. It's a song that brings me comfort. It's not a pity party, it's about letting go of the toil and the strife. I think both of us have as our core favorites a lot of music that the finger-pointing masses would label "depressing," and I think we've both kicked against those pricks quite often. It's certainly a misguided notion that I have tried to redress through my own writing, this idea that music with hints of tragedy somehow inspire tragedy. The reasoning that people like Luke Haines create music that is so meaningful to its fans because they expresses thoughts that we, as individuals, usually felt only we experienced has become a hoary old cliché, and that's because, like most clichés, it's true. There is something gratifying in having an articulate--and usually funny, for misanthropes are generally the funniest of the lot--poet peel back the curtains and say, "No, all of us have had these days." As much as I love "Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows" by Leslie Gore, it's only the occasional day where I feel in line with the sentiments the song expresses. Whereas "Everything You Say Will Destroy You" has been a constant mantra long before Luke Haines did me the favor of recording it. (There seems to be an unlimited amount of opportunities for this big mouth to strike again.)
Could it be that if we boil this all down, the reality of it is, for as outlandish and outside as After Murder Park may seem, it could also be fiendishly normal? Could the songs of the Auteurs be more about everyday life than anything in the Top 40?
There are many ways to interpret the lines "everybody eat your dust/ everybody love your dust" in "Light Aircraft on Fire," but one could easily be, "Embrace that which makes us human rather than let it grind you down." Dust is everywhere, and you, as an individual, are not--and in that is perfection.
CM: Oh, yes, After Murder Park is much more about everyday life--and real feeling--than anything considered "mainstream." But people's real everyday lives, doubts and fears included, are a traditionally very unpopular theme (especially these days, it would seem) and that's what keeps an album like this so far below the upper echelon of that fake hierarchy, our culture's need to rank and oppose "positivity" and "negativity"--as if every day wasn't a constant vying between the two, both inside and external to each of us! After Murder Park does fit into that category of music I know you and I both love, which, contrary to popular belief, can hardly be considered "depressing" for containing both sardonic/gallows humor and actual melancholy; it is a much richer proposition than having to choose between monochromatic "positive" or "negative." If not a catharsis, this kind of music is at least a working through of life's many problematic spots--not the wallow it seems to the Polyannas of the world.
What's etched, sonically and lyrically, into After Murder Park's grooves is something that no thoughtful person could really find depressing: a deep, acute, exacerbated-raw awareness of how important yet elusive actual human dignity and grace are in this world (not to mention an extensive unpacking and rearticulating of that well-worn bit of knowledge about human life itself: the tenuousness, fleetingness, and therefore value of our fragile physical existences). The album traverses its tortuous yet almost unbearably melodic path from crisis ("Light Aircraft on Fire") through deep loss ("Child Brides"); politically partisan paranoia ("Land Lovers"); simmering spite ("New Brat in Town," "Everything You Say Will Destroy You," "Buddha")--and then on to bittersweet short stories of severed or broken relationships ("Unsolved Child Murder" and "After Murder Park;" "Married to a Lazy Lover"), haunted memory ("Fear of Flying"), and the travails and secret tender spots of popular music ("Tombstone," "Dead Sea Navigators"). But, as you mentioned before, there are these beautiful calms after the storms that embody authentic, hard-won hope: "I'll see you on the other side;" "Raise him from the dead;" "I have no fear of dying at all;" "What's left of your nerve will get you through."
You also made the astute and meaningful observation that the last thing sung on the album is "I'll love you until the end,"--and the title is, after all, After Murder Park. We all have survived (or, less happily, will survive in the future) some or all of the things it's Haines's pleasure to evoke with such passion and power, and we become the people we are almost as much by the decision to wring whatever we can from them--or, conversely, merely to block them out--as we do from the experiences themselves. I'm reminded of the big-picture perspective of the heroine of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (another work about loss, memory, and what happens "after" someone is wrenched away) when she muses: "But why bother about the end of the world? It's the end of the world every day, for someone." For those of us who know that kind of stoically wise, sobering (yet clarifying and not altogether humorless) realization and its expression to be valuable, compassionate, and true, After Murder Park is a heroic work of art.
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Current Soundtrack: "Survivor: Exile Island;" Fiona Apple talking to Sasha Frere-Jones
Current Mood: predatory
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich