After paving the way for Britpop in his influential combo the Auteurs, and then documenting the ensuing phenomenon in his scathing Britpop chronicle, Bad Vibes, Luke Haines has beaten an increasingly eccentric – and fascinating – path.
Home-recorded solo records like last year’s 9Â½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early ’80s have showcased a uniquely imaginative vision, which has less to do with contemporary pop than the magic-realist satirical fiction of German post-war author Günter Grass – or, in spirit, if not in sound, the rock follies of mid-’70s prog/metal.
The North Sea Scrolls pursues another hare-brained concept beyond the bounds of rational explanation. A collaborative record, made alongside Cathal Coughlan (ex-Microndisney and Fatima Mansions, who penned and sang a handful of the songs) and rock journalist (and eMusic writer!) Andrew Mueller (who narrates), its deranged premise is that the three of them have taken possession of some documents – à la the Dead Sea Scrolls – which tell a weird alternative history of Britain.
One of the key changes to accepted reality is that Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader who courted Hitler in the 1930s, actually got to form two governments. His ministers include Enoch Powell, the notorious racist politician who by some strange chicanery ends up joining the prog-rock band, Gong, and Tim Hardin, the heroin-addicted late-’60s singer-songwriter, who becomes Mosley’s Culture Secretary.
In isolation, the songs about these implausible developments – the wry chucklemaster Haines on Powell; the pithier Coughlan on Hardin – are baffling, and leave you hanging on for every line in disbelief. Elsewhere, Haines has Ian Ball, the man who attempted to kidnap Princess Anne in 1974, sitting in Broadmoor psychiatric prison, mistakenly believing himself to be the same Ian Ball who sang in the Mercury Prize-winning alt-blues combo, Gomez.
Mueller’s spoken-word “Scroll (Number)” tracks help ease the listener into this absurd parallel universe, but initially it’s all too much to take in at once. With time, however, these become pop songs that you hum along to, just like any other pop song, skillfully crafted, subtly textured over acoustic guitars with moody synths and muted strings. Eventually, you find yourself getting into the swing of it, imitating Haines’s malevolent whine, as he intones, say, “I know where my heart lies/ It’s back on the Broadmoor blues delta.”
What it’s all about is not so easy to discern. In the case of the Ian Ball song, Haines clearly enjoys poking fun at Gomez, who were his label-mates in the late ’90s, and who were prioritized over him in the wake of their award success.
With equal relish, Haines has pointed out that The North Sea Scrolls is “Google-proof,” by which he means that the answers to the riddles it contains are not to be found, unlike all others these days, on the internet. As such, if there is any rhyme or reason to it, we should understand it as a quiet lament for the human imagination, all but snuffed out in a digitized world – but one which gains in power and purpose with every listen.