BLACK BOX RECORDER: THE FACTS OF LIFE (2000)
1) The Art Of Driving; 2) Weekend; 3) The English Motorway System; 4) May Queen; 5) Sex Life; 6) French Rock'n'Roll; 7) The Facts Of Life; 8) Straight Life; 9) Gift Horse; 10) The Deverell Twins; 11) Goodnight Kiss.
This is like a carbon copy of England Made Me, except this time everything is different. Well, musically the only big difference is that the band relies more on electronics — creatively programmed drums and digital keyboards threaten to push the guitar sound out completely on the first few tracks, although acoustic and electric guitars still find a way to creep in through the back door, eventually. But if you thought this change in texture would make the band sound colder (as a transition to a more electronic sound often does), you couldn't be more wrong.
In comparison with England Made Me, The Facts Of Life is a downright optimistic, positively charged album. Not because England was such an epitome of depression, and certainly not because the band now offers anything like a «happy» view of the world — no, they still sound like the same bunch of resigned shut-ins, with no intention whatsoever to come out into the sun and play the usual game of life. The difference is that, faced with the choice of "kill yourself or get over it", The Facts Of Life makes a clear decision in the direction of "getting over it" (I could not even exclude the possibility that the decision was consciously chosen so as to avoid the tag of «suicide propagandists» that some media sources were only too happy to attach to the band).
In a way, the differences are subtle — and how could they not be, when this is, after all, the same band, with the same distinctive, individualistic vocalist and the same idea that music should be an honest reflection of life itself? But sometimes a spade is just a spade, and when, on the tenebrous ballad ʽStraight Lifeʼ, Sarah coos "it's a beautiful morning, it's a beautiful day", it is unreasonable to look for any hidden irony. Instead, this is a quiet, self-contained celebration of the «dream home» — separation from all the irritants ("away from alternative culture, transient people coming in and out of our lives...") and chilling out in the safeness and cuddliness of your densely woven cocoon. Irony? More like utopian escapism, if you ask me. Some people actually like to "live in a tin on top of the wardrobe", especially those that are convinced that living anywhere else exposes you to misery and suffering.
If there is one song that I feel reminded of while listening to this album, it is... Bob Dylan's ʽLay Lady Layʼ — the synthesized strings that open ʽThe Art Of Drivingʼ kind of echo those Nashville steel guitars that provide the soft, springy foundation for Dylan's love ballad. I daresay it is just a coincidence, but in reality, the two songs share more than just a couple of chords — both are soft, gallant pleas to the imaginary listener, begging him/her to give in, seducing and becalming the listener. From that point of view, a "stay lady stay, stay while the night is still ahead" is not that different from a "you've been driving way too fast, you've been taking things too far". The entire album is just that — a big old "slow down" message. Slow down, drop out, tuck in, get off, and stay under. There's actual beauty to be contemplated in all this.
To make things more convincing, Nixey shifts her singing technique, melting a few blocks of ice and transforming them to breathy steam — songs like ʽWeekendʼ are purringly sexy, even if the singer immediately issues a warning ("careful not to touch, we've drunk enough"), and few other people could make a repeated line like "Friday night, Saturday morning" sound so mysterious — is it longing? yearning? boredom? hypnotism? whatever it is, it's darkly enchanting, as is ʽThe English Motorway Systemʼ, a Buddhist anthem to the art of existing and surviving on the highway — especially efficient if you play it back to back with Deep Purple's ʽHighway Starʼ, as an effective illustration of how the exact same object can trigger such different visions. And even if "the English motorway system is an accident waiting to happen", this is not a horrific realisation, but rather just one more of those "facts of life" that you learn in the course of "detached observing". It's a highway anthem all right, yet at the same time it's a song that could have just as well be done by any qualified master of «ambient pop», like Brian Eno.
So as not to fall completely into the trap of discussing lyrics rather than music (and there is a lot to discuss here, believe me), I will just state what seems obvious — the chief musical instrument here is Nixey's voice, through and through; otherwise, ʽMay Queenʼ would be a mere rip-off of the Beatles' ʽDear Prudenceʼ (whose guitar chords it is quite unashamed to pilfer), and ʽGift Horseʼ would merely be a pretty instrumental, stuck somewhere in between New Age, adult contemporary, and baroque pop — it is the singing that transforms them into gorgeous fantasies of romantic escapism. Most beautiful of the lot, though, is saved for last: for ʽGoodnight Kissʼ, Sarah packs so much tenderness that by this time, I believe, every single listener should be subscribing to the Church of Black Box Recorder, buying all their records, stocking up on cereals, water, and toilet paper, and boarding up all doors and windows. "Use your imagination, we can go anywhere" — it's all in the mind, you know.
Of course, if I were hard pressed to only choose one, I'd still go with England Made Me, for all the extra darkness and frost. But The Facts Of Life really dwells in the same darkness and frost: all it does is shine a little light inside the darkness and get a bit of a fire going in the midst of the frost, because, well, you know, otherwise it's "kill yourself" and we don't wanna do that. So essentially they just constitute a solid premise and a logical sequel, and the «choice» is a fickle idea anyway — let us just simplify things and go with another thumbs up.