Not counting the soundtrack to the film Christy Malry's Own Double Entry, this is the first solo album from former Auteurs leader/Black Box Recorder member, Luke Haines. As with his previous work, The Oliver Twist Manifesto is a caustic little gem that fuses fuzzy 70's style guitar playing with all manner of strange electronic devices and orchestral strings, which are further complemented by Haines's snarling, half-whispered vocals. As a result, it ends up sounding like a bizarre amalgamation of every album he's worked on before, with the pop sensibilities of The Auteurs, the bleak-conceptualisation of Baader Meinhof, and the stark ambient minimalism of Black Box Recorder, all coming together to create a perfectly judged record that could (and should) be considered the Dark Side of the Moon for this generation.
The album opens with the sound of a ticking clock (sound familiar?) - or is it a bomb? - before the synthesisers and keyboards drift in and Luke intones the opening statement "this is not entertainment... don't expect me to entertain you". As introductory tracks go, Rock N' Roll Communiqué No. 1 is perfect, fusing a beautiful and fragile pop melody with some wonderfully threatening lyrics ("it may not be pretty, people might get hurt, reputations could be tarnished") to create something that isn't merely another song, but rather, a full blown mission statement. Here Haines introduces a number of themes and concepts that will continue throughout the album - primarily celebrity, fame, excess and popular culture (the album's subtitle mockingly reads "what's wrong with popular culture?") - before launching into the twisted, cabaret, hip-hop rant, Oliver Twist. In this song, Haines takes things even further, invoking a sense of old-fashioned Victorian values, comparing himself to the young Twist (perhaps?) and rebelling against the whole "cool-Britannia" image of a the last decade with bilious lines like "for the age I was born, for Victoriana, this is Oliver Twist p*ssing over Britannia" and "swooping down like the Hun... over the gas-lit streets of London".
Death of Sarah Lucas is fairly self-explanatory, with Haines lashing out at smug, pretentious, self-righteous young artistes ("...she's using humour to question our own preconceptions") before intoning the sort-of mantra, "I shot Sarah Lucas"... whilst Never Work finds Haines debating the joys of unemployment through lyrics like "la travail jamais, call a general strike in may", all backed by a lovely harpsichord melody and some gorgeous strings. The album on the whole is wonderfully performed, with Haines creating most of the music himself (with the strings and percussion fleshed out by a plethora of past Haines collaborators), whilst crafting some of the greatest lyrics of his career. The imagery and humour is perfect, with that caustic wit - so suited to that first Black Box Recorder album - really benefiting a song like Discomania, which features the oft-quoted lyric "Kim Wilde is Sex!!".
Both Mr & Mrs Solanas (continuing the murdered artist theme) and What Happens When We Die? are much darker numbers that probably could have come from Auteurs' albums like Now I'm a Cowboy and After Murder Park (only with the electro-pop influence of Passionoia). Mr & Mrs S... is perfectly bleak sounding, with lots of fuzzy guitars and lyrics that name check Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas and Michel Bernstein, whilst What Happens When We Die? could probably be cited as the best Haines song ever... a painfully honest and subdued electronic ballad that adopts that lyrical stance of a young child questioning the death all around them ("will the dead, out-number the living, a silent majority, spare parts for surgery... I'd really like to know, what happens when we die?"). The album is worth owning just for What Happens When We Die, which despite the bleak subject matter, is really a perfectly created and observed piece of pop. However, the rest of the album is equally impressive, not just the tracks mentioned above, but also the songs that flesh out the second half of the album.
Christ finds Haines making similarities between himself and the messiah, before tossing out analogies like "camp Christ, little-self-hatred Christ, hanging in a garden shed Christ". The Spook Manifesto has an electronic beat that's strangely reminiscent of the theme from Casualty (before it transforms into a huge electronic, orchestral epic with Morricone-style backing vocals)... whilst the lyrics (replete with references to the angels of death and Dr. Strange) are sparse and filtered through a number of digital distortions. England Vs America is probably the closest the album gets to 'acoustic', although even this is taken further by strange digital pulses and epic guitar/synthesiser solos (whilst the lyrics return to the terrorist themes central to both Baader Meinhof and Christy Malry). The album comes to a close with the title track, which references the earlier Oliver Twist (and much of the preceding record) as well as Haines himself ("all these songs about Christ, spooks and personal vendettas... organ donation? It's a mini-operetta... people are gonn'a say you've gone off your rocker... well I'm the brightest thing on the roster"). Like the rest of the album, it's a fearless statement, and a surprising one from a man who used to write gorgeous indie-pop about showgirls and new French girlfriends.
However, despite the techno flourishes and the almost satirical (and theatrical) stance that Haines has taken on this project, the music here, and of course, the lyrical content, is bound to appeal to anyone who has appreciated any of the music that Haines has been involved with in the past. As a conceptual, thematic work, The Oliver Twist Manifesto holds up perfectly from beginning to end, though can easily be enjoyed a collection of great songs (Rock N' Roll Communiqué No. 1, Oliver Twist, Never Work, Mr & Mrs S..., What Happens When We Die? and England Vs America are all essentials for me). So, like many of the albums that Haines has been involved with (New Wave, After Murder Park, Baader Meinhof, England Made Me), The Oliver Twist Manifesto should be an integral purchase.