Artists who harbor ambitions that outstrip their talent often try to pre-empt accusations of pretentiousness by hiding behind surface ironies. Luke Haines called his first rock band the Auteurs, thus placing quotation marks around whatever they produced, which was mostly literary-minded rock descended from the Bowie-Reed school of decadent narcissism.
The Auteurs’ success was limited by a failure to get specific. Each of the group’s albums took off on a different musical tangent, so if you liked one of them you may not have liked any of the others. Haines has since narrowed his priorities, first with a solo project, Baader-Meinhof, and now with Black Box Recorder, whose second album, “The Facts of Life,” has given him his first top-20 single.
Sarah Nixey, a former mime, provides the kind of cold, singsongy vocals that Haines himself has never been able to pull off. It’s a special blessing, since Haines, like Richard Thompson and Ben Watt, turns out to be the kind of writer who does his best work for a female POV, though I suppose some of the credit should go to Haines’ co-writer, John Moore, formerly of the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Relaxed in a hip, loungey way and featuring the kind of spooky guitars that made Angelo Badalamenti David Lynch’s friend forever, “The Facts of Life” skates close to pastiche but succeeds on the strength of solid songcraft. Chipper verses give way to dark choruses or vice versa. The joys of middle-class comfort are simultaneously celebrated and undermined. Sex is a big part of every song, but despite Nixey’s detached, almost superior air, the message that comes through is that one should never envy other people’s romantic lives. “You’re getting ideas,” she sings breathily to an adolescent on the title cut, “and when you sleep at night, they develop into sweet dreams.” Artists do it in their heads.