Black Box Recorder is the electronic pop project that every credible guitarist-songwriter secretly wants to do: a retreat from rock id to a more upwardly mobile sonic universe that still retains the tragic power that the rock idiom is almost always better equipped to express. Luke Haines's previous band, the Auteurs, painted brilliant still-lifes of murder, despair, and spiritualist longing on After Murder Park--a bristly late-Beatles-style rock epic unraveled through the eyes of an insane vagrant and the British tabloids she slept on. The songs he writes with Black Box Recorder glide past his muse's twilit park bench in a haunted Bentley; vocalist Sarah Nixey is the sleepy London socialite in the back seat, aching to become "The New Diana" through an Ecstasy hangover, watching through purpled eyelids as "deep-sea fishermen toil in the sunset/Dragging in the mermaid caught in the fishing net."
That's as overt a reference to the Princess of Wales's paparazzi-induced death as we're allowed on this deceptively club-and-sushi-restaurant-friendly album. The rest of the time, Diana's demise is the elephant in the middle of the party, unacknowledged out of English decorum ("Maybe they did it out of politeness/There was radio silence," Nixey ponders on "When Britain Refused to Sing"). Diana was Britain's JFK and Jackie O rolled into one, the dream of an outsider becoming New Royalty and of old royalty becoming, er, human. And as "royalty" was redefined, "upwardly mobile" was reified--though as a Yank, there are probably some nuances of her passing that I'll never understand. But after casting herself as that wayward socialite, sunning her bikini'd body on the album's cover, Nixey regresses/confesses 25 minutes into the album, shedding some light in a humid whisper: "This is Sarah Nixey talking, MIDI'd up and into the groove.../A daughter of negative equity, a child of Black Wednesday.../Daddy lost everything..." What can one do after the pound collapses and the cameras that abetted class mobility in its public sphere now turn on their main subject and kill her in a Paris tunnel? Nothing left but to tart yourself up in MIDI and hit the pavement.
Then you unfold the CD booklet, and Nixey's comfy poolside tableau reveals a naked body floating facedown in the water while Haines and another tuxedoed band member are rapt in a conversation at the other side of the patio, perhaps about a kick-ass new ProTools plug-in. The class-negating power that pop music once held is now doing the Jay Gatsby float, as if to say, Of course rock is dead, now what are aspiring rock stars supposed to do? Luckily, you can fully enjoy BBR's songs on a surface level, or at higher elevations, turning the album cover facedown out of respect, using the case as a decorative coaster or coke mirror.
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