BLACK BOX RECORDER: PASSIONOIA (2003)
1) The School Song; 2) GSOH Q.E.D.; 3) British Racing Green; 4) Being Number One; 5) The New Diana; 6) These Are The Things; 7) Andrew Ridgley; 8) When Britain Refused To Sing; 9) Girls Guide For The Modern Diva; 10) I Ran All The Way Home.
Apparently, this was never meant to be the final BBR LP — the band members were just supposed to take a break in order to pursue solo ventures, from which, however, they never truly recovered. Sad, because out of their three «proper» LPs, Passionoia is clearly the weakest one. It is not at all bad — in fact, it's intriguing as hell, and not any less intelligent and biting, and I'm all for having it and savoring it, it's just that it would look much better sitting in the middle of their discography rather than playing the part of an accidental swan song.
The thing is, on Passionoia Haines and Co. decided that it was time to frame their satire and maddening ambiguity in an «electro-pop» setting, highly derivative of Eighties' synthpop and, in some way, quietly heralding the soon-to-come trend of rock bands embracing vintage synthesizers and hopping into the 21st century on the shoulders of that weird, tech-crazed, decade's electronic wizards. But Luke Haines really plays nobody's game but his own, and, as usual, it is not easy to tell whether he actually likes these dance rhythms or if he just uses them to lure in the unsuspecting listener — dance, dance, dance, before you know what really hit you.
What I do know is that the pounding electropop beats disturb and confuse the subtlety, so important for the total success of any given Black Box Recorder song. You can't beat those lyrics, or those pop hooks, or the usual deadly loveliness of Sarah Nixey's voice, but you can corrode them a little if you go too far, and contaminate the atmosphere. Certainly songs like ʽGSOH Q.E.D.ʼ or ʽAndrew Ridgeleyʼ (a veritable tongue-in-cheek ode to synthpop, choosing Wham! as its symbolic start-off point) should not be used as a natural introduction to the world of Black Box Recorder: we wouldn't want anybody to think of them as a «dance band», even if you have to be really stupid to take ʽAndrew Ridgeleyʼ at face value.
That said, in the overall context of BBR's career, the point is taken: Passionoia is not so much this band's lesson in nostalgia as it is a lesson in history. Haines and Moore, using Sarah as their instrument of choice, go back to their childhood days (actually, one could say they go back to her childhood days, since Sarah is the youngest member of the three and it is only her teens that were properly soaked in the Eighties) and, basically, ruminate on what it was that made Black Box Recorder what it is today. Of all three records, Passionoia is the most extraverted one — there are endless references to Britain, British history, British culture, British celebrities, British education, and even though all of them are still made from within the safe frozen confines of BBR's glass house, this time around, BBR's beady eye is staring out, not in.
As usual, the songs are mostly great, despite the fact that this transition to electronic rhythms way too often prompts Nixey to trade in her nuanced singing for ice-cold spoken parts or robotic choruses (which she still delivers seductively). ʽThe School Songʼ takes ye olde tradition of lambasting the cold and cruel educational practices of The System and makes Black Box Recorder a «proud» part of it — whoever takes the time to listen to this anthem to the end, gets "a grade A from the Black Box Recorder School of Song"; along the way, Sarah successfully plays the part of the monster teacher (although, frankly speaking, I wouldn't mind getting a double detention from the likes of her!) and instructs you to "destroy your record collection, it's for your own protection", which is fairly sound advice, I'd say.
The major highlight and, not coincidentally, the least dance-oriented tune on the album is ʽBritish Racing Greenʼ, probably one of the creepiest pieces in the BBR catalog: the lovelier the tone in which Sarah is describing our conservative ideal ("a little cottage by the sea, a glass of gin, a box of chocolate"), the more disturbing is that post-chorus distorted guitar riff, and the very idea of "British racing green", ending each chorus with gravity and suspense, is used as a threatening symbol of... isolation? containment? self-sufficiency? whatever. Where a Ray Davies would have probably turned the same song into a hypnotic ad for his country, Black Box Recorder have this perfect balance between paradise and nightmare — just like on the album cover, where blissful poolside relaxation is contrasted with some poor slob floating face downwards in the same pool (a visual metaphor that is almost too blatant by BBR's own standards).
The same song also introduces the band's big problem with Lady Di ("Now I'm living in a chatroom with the Diana fan club / They sent a virus to my dream"), more fully explored in the vicious electronic-acoustic ballad ʽNew Dianaʼ — so vicious, in fact, that it would automatically preclude Black Box Recorder from turning into the nation's favorite band, had they ever nurtured such a thought. Although, frankly speaking, it is not a very good song: musically simplistic and vocally relying on a single repetitive hook ("I want to be the new Diana!"), it has less replay value than the similarly-themed, but not name-dropping ʽGirls Guide For The Modern Divaʼ, with a trickier vocal arrangement.
The sarcastic mask stays on the face all through the album, until the very last number: ʽI Ran All The Way Homeʼ, nearly free of any electronic coatings, states that "The novelty has worn off / We are not amused any more / If you really love me / You'll let me go home". Go home where, exactly? It does feel like an escapist anthem, but the way Haines, Moore, and Nixey built up their philosophy, it does not exactly leave them any particular room for escape. Then again, probably what they are talking about is still that same "home" of ʽIdeal Homeʼ, the cocoon-capsule, the «black box» that shelters the protagonist from the perversities of unprotected life — the whole song is just one more metaphor for a panicky existence in the real world, into which they'd briefly ventured out with their dance rhythms and pulsating synthesizers, and which they now abhor even more completely than before. At least, that's one possible hell of an interpretation.
Despite its particular and general flaws, there is still no way that Passionoia could be deprived of a thumbs up, and if you were taken in by the first two records, it will, at worst, let you down only slightly (at best, if you are a synthpop / techno lover, its computerized tissue will only be a further stimulus). As I said, the only reason for sadness is that with this record, Black Box Recorder bid us all farewell without anyone knowing it. They did come together several years later, with two more songs written and released as a single circa 2009, but no album followed, and the band officially split in 2010. Of course, it may simply have been that they felt there was nothing more to say, and I get them: pursuing the same musical and ideological agenda, album after album, must be tedious for Luke Haines, and as great as the Black Box Recorder project has been, it has been really a «one-trick pony» type of project — I mean, Sarah Nixey is a perfect type of singer for this attitude, but she is rather one-dimensional, like so many femme fatales (Nico etc.), and if Black Box Recorder carried on for too long, they would have run the risk of stepping into the realm of self-parody. The only thing we can hope for now is that these three records do not fade away into total obscurity — they may be closely linked to a particular time and a particular place, but that time and that place are really so symbolic and so extendable to other situations that they will always find a grateful audience, like so many other «dated» artefacts of quintessentially British culture.