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Album Of The Week

Uneasy Does It: Insecure Men Reviewed
Anna Wood , February 22nd, 2018 08:16

Can Saul Adamczewski and his new band create beautiful pop songs from paedophilia, premature death and racist imperialism? Why yes, they can. All it takes is faith in humanity and a little bit of genius

“There’s something creepy about British light entertainment and there always has been. Joe Orton meets the Marquis de Sade at the end of the pier, with a few Union Jacks fluttering in the stink and a mother-in-law tied in bunting to a ducking-stool. Those of us who grew up on it liked its oddness without quite understanding how creepy it was. I mean, Benny Hill? And then we wake up one day and wonder why so many of them turned out to be deviants and weirdos.” ‘Light Entertainment’, Andrew O’Hagan

Right from the first track, there is something compellingly off about this album. ‘Subaru Nights’ is at once gloopy and gossamer; it has dreamy vocals and spacey Joe Meek jingles, ersatz luau bendy guitars and quasi-haka chants, and there’s even something like a bagpipe in there. It is brilliant, yes; it is blissful and not quite right, a groggy sleep in the sunshine. Smacky, but not only that. It’s fun and disorienting, familiar but dangerous. (Perhaps this is the feeling - and it’s difficult not to make this analogy once you’ve listened to the album a few times - that we all had for 30 or 40 years as we watched Jimmy Savile slobber on his cigar and josh about with children on our tellies every week.)

The range of musical forebears is rich and broad - as documented on Saul Adamczewski’s Quietus Radio Hour last year and on Insecure Men’s recent NTS show - but there is a strict, solid aesthetic at work. The lineage is men (mainly) who aren’t so much insecure as awkward - awkward as in gauche, awkward as in vulnerable, awkward as in stubborn bloody-minded bastards. From Jock Scot to The Carpenters to Stavely Makepeace to Lawrence to The Moomins to Abner Jay, Adamczewski sees the connections like a niche monomaniac or, maybe, like a proper pop genius.

The new single, ‘Teenage Toy’, is proper pop genius. Bursting with school-disco hormones and something even less savoury than that, packed with daft disco pow-pows and fairground organs, it has a kind of wonky wide-boy charm that’s a bit Ian Dury, a bit Jona Lewie, a bit Cockney Rebel. “There’s certain things you can’t accomplish alone,” he sings, with more of a sigh than a wink, a bit like Robert Wyatt now. The chorus comes late, over the ‘Be My Baby’ kick-kick-kick-snare, that archetypal teen-pop drum beat, and by that point you know that this is a sure-fire hit single in a world just slightly better than the one we’re currently in.

At some point, though, a load of lads will be at an Insecure Men gig, beers in hand, singing “Teenage toy! Teenage toy! Messing around with all the oooolder boys!” It will be a bit queasy, a bit off. But Insecure Men write songs about paedophiles and trust us to not be paedophiles, just like Fat White Family write songs about nazis and trust us not to be nazis; it seems like a reasonable assumption, even if it might leave you queasy sometimes. More radically, you get the feeling they’d buy you a pint even if you were a nazi or a paedophile.

This album is full of radical empathy - radical in the sense that it extends to everyone. In ‘Mekong Glitter’, it even extends to Gary Glitter, getting a blowjob from a child. “Why? Don’t you ever ask why?” chants the chorus, when it finally arrives two-thirds of the way through the song. By that point, we’ve already plunged into that forever-compelling motorik Glitter-Band beat along with sythesized gone-awry noodles, fuzz and feedback; it is glorious. It is glorious even as you hear the seedy and racist and clumsy innuendo, the boorish barking backing vocals. They are crossing a line here. But (to paraphrase EL Doctorow) if you’re not transgressing then what’s the point? There’s no empathy with the abused child, you realise, but then there’s no “why?” there either. The child is already getting the empathy here; the idea - whether you like it or not - is to even things up. Still, for reasons I won’t try to explain right now, lager boys singing “Yellow fever, on your knees” makes me feel even sicker than the thought of them blaring along to ‘Teenage Toy’. Perhaps Insecure Men, if only for expedience, have more faith in drunken young men than I do.

This trust in humanity has an esteemed lineage, one that includes historian Tony Parker, who published extraordinary and beautiful long interviews with murderers and paedophiles as well as lighthouse keepers and young mothers, and Clive Stafford-Smith, the defence lawyer for death-row and Guantanamo detainees, who has said that if he had his time again he would defend paedophiles (“Even Guardian readers hate paedophiles,” he explains). This worldview is the opposite of a tabloidism; it is richly human. Rather than put up with “the jury”, those internal voices who criticise and mock and persecute, maybe Insecure Men are ceding the floor to their inner defence barrister, who loves them and cares for them and sticks up for them, however terrible they feel they are. Radical empathy extends even to the ridiculous little ghoul that we sometimes believe is our own true self.

True-life horror is rarely so completely entwined with pop music as it is on this album. When you listen to The Carpenters it is there, some gaping sadness just beneath, just like when you listen to Joe Meek you can feel some glint of the dreadful goings-on at 304 Holloway Road. Insecure Men has that, all over; something is inherently and brilliantly amiss. It is consoling, almost.

The most bracing (and that’s not quite the right word) of all these songs is ‘Whitney Houston & I’, which seems to be equally fascinated and heartbroken by the fact that Whitney Houston’s daughter drowned in the bath, just as Houston herself had three years earlier. The ‘I’ of the song is the daughter, Bobbi, although we don’t necessarily realise that (or care) when we hear the opening line: “Whitney Houston and I / Both like a hot bath.” The music is like a John Carpenter soundtrack played by Phoenix Nights’ house band. Your moral compass and your aesthetic bearings are utterly thwarted. “I’ve been hitching a ride on the coat-tails of my momma,” they sing, softly. Is this a kind of merciless empathy, how it might have looked from Bobbi’s precarious life? Or is it plain human amazement that mother and daughter died in the very same way? “Together forever,” they croon, and you can almost see the candles in the wind and the flowers in cellophane, the handwritten cards getting soggy in the rain. But those feelings are no less heartfelt, just because you might think they’re tacky, just because they’re not polished to our satisfaction.

And there’s a lineage, too, for this fascination with tawdry human horror, including the books of Tony Parker, David Peace, Gordon Burn, and even Kenneth Anger’s gleefully sordid Hollywood Babylon. The lineage looks at shabby horrors with a steely eye and tells us that everyone, every-single-one, is just as human as we are, and we are no better or worse than them. There are no evil monsters, as the tabloids and our selves might prefer to believe. There’s often the suggestion, though, that you might get away with more if you are cooler, posher, or just luckier. You might be politely ignored for a few decades. The question is: what are we ignoring now, what queasy horrors are hiding in plain sight? And then you start to wonder why it feels so good not to see them, not to mention them.

This album is soaked in the almost-historical Britain of the 70s and 80s, a time when most people still remembered the war, when loose cigarettes were sold for 5p each next to the sweets in the corner shop, pop stars were cheerfully singing songs we might now describe as ’rapey’, and the Black And White Minstrel Show was primetime Saturday night telly. Insecure Men are too young to remember this ephemera, and this album doesn’t sound old or retro; if anything it makes you realise that we’re not that far on from where we were then. Insecure Men understand the “seedy ingredients of populism”, as Andrew O’Hagan puts it in that essay, and they make perfectly seedy pop music.

Although it’s not just that. They spring from the same stinky rich soil as The Moonlandingz (most of this album was recorded in Sean Lennon’s studio in New York State while The Moonlandingz were recording their album down the hall) and of course they share DNA (literally) with Fat White Family. Fat White’s Nathan Saoudi co-wrote ‘Teenage Toy’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Dance (With My Baby)’, and most of the album’s lyrics are written or co-written by Lias. Half the record is tackling that crass-serious question that FWF asked on Songs For Our Mothers: “If Hitler had made a banging record, would you listen to it?

There’s a new kind of dabbling in wholesomeness on Insecure Men though, which is perhaps down to the (in Saul’s words) “centred, calm, rational” influence of Ben Romans-Hopcraft, the other half of this band’s central duo. There’s also the rich exotica vibe, which is so ersatz that it makes the whole thing even more English eccentric. The effect, in the end, is not kitsch but it is perhaps camp in the way that Susan Sontag defined it - an art that “neutralises moral indignation and sponsors playfulness”. Isn’t that useful, when you’re trying to look at something terrible and stay sane, stay kind, find some pleasure, have some fun? “It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good,” wrote Sontag. “It is a kind of love, love for human nature.”