BLACK BOX RECORDER: ENGLAND MADE ME (1998)
1) Girl Singing In The Wreckage; 2) England Made Me; 3) New Baby Boom; 4) It's Only The End Of The World; 5) Ideal Home; 6) Child Psychology; 7) I. C. One Female; 8) Up Town Top Ranking; 9) Swinging; 10) Kidnapping An Heiress; 11) Hated Sunday.
One hell of a fun ride would be playing this album back-to-back with Springsteen's Born In The USA — another album that describes the uneasy relationship between the protagonist and his home country, but in a diametrically opposite manner. As someone born in the USA, the Boss is rowdy, hot, dynamic, willing to go to extremes in any given emotional state. As someone made by England, Sarah Nixey is... frozen. Black Box Recorder? More like Ice Box Recorder, if you ask me. With cockle shells and silver bells to boot.
Interestingly enough, the Black Box Recorder project was started up by Luke Haines before his main band, The Auteurs, folded its wings and went to sleep. In its deepest essence, the project pursued the same goals — a cynical, melancholic deconstruction of any life-asserting values that the surrounding society and culture might contain — but the execution was very different. All the songs were co-written by Haines with John Moore, formerly the drummer and guitarist for The Jesus And Mary Chain, and all the lead vocals were female, handled by the abovementioned Sarah Nixey, formerly a nobody, but as a member of Black Box Recorder — one of the most haunting figures in British indie pop. Consequently, Black Box Recorder explored a «softer», subtler, less rock-based approach than The Auteurs, and its combination of ingredients, even if it is not necessarily «better» than The Auteurs, seems much more unique.
The key ingredient of England Made Me are the vocal melodies that Luke and John are feeding to Sarah — and her interpretation of these melodies. Unlike, say, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, who typically sings out of a bathtub with razor blades fastened to her wrists, Sarah never lets her slightly childlike voice quiver with extreme emotion. Instead, she delivers those lyrics, usually full of gruesome, morbid, or cynically bittersweet imagery (the most often quoted line is the chorus to ʽChild Psychologyʼ — "life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it"), like a formerly sweet and delicate person that, after some particularly dreadful trauma, has pretty much lost all feeling, or fallen in an entranced state. Pinned to a background of quietly plucked guitars, inobtrusive backing vocals, occasional chimes and synthesizer strings, it makes for a great combination: simple, immediately hitting all the right nerve centers, and with no direct analogies.
The price to pay for this is monotonousness: the level of variation in between these 11 tunes is fairly low. But the tunes themselves are short, and each one has a little something going on to hook your attention, be it the decisiveness with which Sarah states that "my 18th birthday, I'll die of boredom" (ʽGirl Singing In The Wreckageʼ), or the gruesome conclusiveness of her "the kid is gone, he's not my son" (ʽNew Baby Boomʼ), or the freezing, ironically consolating tone of her "it's only the end of the world..." (meaning that the worst is yet to come, after all), or the depressing blues picking on ʽKidnapping An Heiressʼ, which leaves no hope for humanity even before the first bit of lyrics comes along.
The true wonder of England Made Me, though, is that it is one of those albums that does not really make you want to kill yourself — but rather to get over it. It wears its mourning clothes quite casually and stoically, neither commanding the listener to fight this gloom (because it cannot be fought against) nor, like Robert Smith or the aforementioned Beth Gibbons, inviting you to masochistically gloat over it. It's only the end of the world — get it? It's not that serious. It just happens. One of the key songs, ʽIdeal Homeʼ, presents you with this mystical claustrophobic perfection ("in an ideal home, everything's safe... in an ideal home, nothing you do can go wrong..."), contrasting it with "miserable songs from the house next door, perhaps they're planning to end it all" — you can take it as a blunt allegory of social segregation, of course, but you can also view it as a hymn to spiritual isolationism: the «ideal home» is a metaphor for simply locking out all feeling and barricading yourself from all the evils, disappointments, and different degrees of shit going on all over the world — an urge that may not be completely alien to quite a few of us, right? Especially when the ʽIdeal Homeʼ is set to such lovely music.
This is, of course, the quintessence of Luke Haines, the most cool-headed guy ever to write and sing about the world's evils, but Sarah here is a more perfect vehicle for his ideas than he himself ever was, and England Made Me, despite — or due to — painting a rather unsavory picture of England as a place where people trap spiders underneath glass and kill strangers at railway stations just because people love a good murder mystery, is one of his finest contributions to the world of intelligent pop music. A humble masterpiece that deserves to be much better known, so here's hoping that this enthusiastic thumbs up might help it some.