Yeah yeah, the Auteurs never completely fit into the Britpop-as-cultural movement narrative, but by mining 60s and 70s English rock, their debut New Wave divined the future of the genre. But first things first.
Luke Haines toiled in C86 act, The Servants, for several years prior to forming the Auteurs in 1990. After gigging in and around London for a couple years, they got a deal with Hut Records. Their aforementioned debut saw the light of day in 1993, the same year of the dissolution of Madchester pioneers the Happy Mondays, the same year Oasis signed to Creation, the same year Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson died, the same year Sleepless in Seattle taught us how to love.
The band’s biggest exposure arrived when New Wave was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize, ultimately losing to Suede’s self-titled debut (a fey glam revival record that is is widely credited with helping to kick-start Britpop.) Though The Auteurs never achieved much commercial success in the U.K., you can’t blame it all on Haines’ wry and grim lyrics.
The band titled its sophomore release, Now I’m A Cowboy, only a year after Suede’s Brett Anderson appeared on a magazine cover in a Union Flag jacket, next to the headline “Yanks Go Home!” And in 1996, the peak of anti-American sentiment in British music, Haines recruited grunge architect Steve Albini to produce the Auteurs’s third album, After Murder Park.
Rejected Album Cover for The Auteurs Second Album
Forming Black Box Recorder with John Moore of Jesus and the Mary Chain in 1998, Haines saw his greatest commercial success when he wasn’t even singing, enlisting honey-voiced Sarah Nixey to sing sentiments like: “I had a dream last night, that I was drunk/I killed the stranger, and left him in a trunk/In Brighton railway station/It was an unsolved case/A famous murder mystery/People love mystery.”
As a frontman, Haines refined the melodic pop of the Kinks and Bowie into a guitar-driven mid-tempo groove that laid the groundwork for Pulp and Blur. While adding a cello player distinguished the Auteurs from the standard guitar/bass/drums taxonomy of British rock. Haines’ lyrics distill Brit-Rock’s greatest cynics (Ray Davies, Morrissey, and Bowie circa Hunky Dory) into a uniquely misanthropic, class struggle-obsessed voice.
Though he veers significantly from the Moz influence in that he possesses few romantic illusions about his characters, nor does he oversell his songs–ever content to deliver acerbic lyrics in a manner alternating between a weary sigh and a dry, raspy mutter.
A loose concept album, New Wave details the exhilarating highs and crushing lows of fame and show business, strongly emphasizing the latter. The protagonists are all failures squinting at stardom from a distance; including a never-was child star (“Starstruck”), a struggling indie band (“American Guitars”), the layabout husband of a faded showgirl (first single “Show Girl”) and a valet driver plotting to kill his employer (“Valet Parking”). Haines’ genius lies in folding his razor-sharp wit into delicately-constructed candy apple melodies, even adding bells and glockenspiel on a few cuts.
The lullaby melody of “Junk Shop Clothes” mocks the aesthetics of alternative rock while referencing Lenny Bruce and Chaim Soutine, as Haines reminds a trust fund kid that “…[j]unk shop clothes/will get you nowhere/no summer pavilion/no shooting season.” Even the overtly pretty “Home Again” culminates with Haines cooing this chorus: “You’re safe, there’s no prowler/No creeper in your lane/It’s better than drugs/it’s cool/To be in your home again.”
Haines might lack the swooning romanticism of a Jarvis Cocker or Morrissey, or the smug swagger of a Damon Albarn. He’s the cynical prick in your circle of friends who’s always right and knows it. Haines showed up to the figurative Britpop party a few years early and overstayed his welcome, sipping gin and making snide comments at the expense of others. Clearly disdainful of Britpop, in a recent interview promoting his memoir, he stated that “[t]he worst thing about that whole period was that, with the exception of Pulp, it…quashed any kind of eccentricity in British music. Britpop really flattened it all out and left us with these homogenous guitar bands.”
The Auteurs didn’t reinvent the wheel with New Wave, but the album anticipated the shift away from the danceable experiments of Madchester and acid house and the move towards the classical British pop of David Bowie, the Beatles and the Kinks, later repped in the music of Suede, Blur, Oasis, etal.
Listening to New Wave conjures a chilly Sunday afternoon in fall, spent reading and brooding indoors by candlelight. It’s a collection of literate, elaborate pop songs written in acidic ink. Even divorced of its historical context, it remains an essential listen for anyone interested in Britpop, British rock music in general, or even Sleepless in Seattle fans.