The Auteurs

New Wave (Reissue)

‘Valet Parking’, the ninth song on The Auteurs’ reissued debut album New Wave, sidles into the perspective of an aggrieved driver weighing the odds of what might be a crystalline Camusian crime, a bravura acte gratuite. In a paradoxically reedy croon, Luke Haines sings "Never saw your driver’s eyes […] we were plotting your demise," thus forecasting the tenor of twenty-one years’ work. With The Auteurs, with Black Box Recorder, and on his own, Haines has succeeded pretty much unfailingly in giving shape to the resentment and aggression which, in their imperfect repression, give English life its character.

To revisit the album is, perhaps, to imagine an alternate history for Britpop in which that maligned pseudo-movement retained some critical wit. Pop-cultural history persists in misremembering the 90s as a period of national confidence to match that of the 60s: Noel’s cocaine cornflakes, Blur sudsing up with Jo Guest, heist films with Sadie Frost, Baddiel and Skinner arsing around as Shearer and Sheringham put the Dutch to the sword at a pulsating, multicultural Wembley. The earlier portion of the decade is strangely unremembered and underthought, patronised as an undramatic overshoot of the eighties without the haircuts. But this is a screen memory. In February 1993, when New Wave was released, unemployment was grazing three million, far-right activity was troubling the streets and terraces, and anxiety was once again mounting about terrorism. The year was also marked by several particularly traumatic murders and their attendant moral panics whilst, abroad, the Pax Americana of 1989 was called into question by war in Somalia and the sharp escalation of ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

So, the 90s were not simply a decade-long episode of Game On: they also incorporated the post-Thatcherite shiftlessness documented in programmes like Cracker. New Wave is an equivalently telling report from the Major Years, and, in its acuity, it’s possible to spot what went missing as Britpop hit the front pages. Much has been made of the political relevance of Pulp, but their bite was overstated – ‘Common People’ is, when it comes down to it, pretty inspecific – and the social observations of Blur and Suede ended up trapped in literary nostalgia and an ultimately affirmative romanticism respectively. Haines, on the other hand, embraced an uncompromising Anglo-cynicism, the magnified ennui of ‘That’s Entertainment’ or ‘Field Day For The Sundays’ or ‘Careering’. ‘Showgirl’, the opener, might inhabit the Margate-out-of-season mien held dear by Damon Albarn and Brett Anderson, but there are finessing details which demonstrate that this is more than just a musicalised nod to Brighton Rock. The layabout narrator takes "a job on the side / in a health shop" but, you suspect, lives mostly off his titular wife’s earnings to sustain a dilettante intellectualism. The lack of direction feels like an allegory for the times.

The album works as a preliminary sketch of Haines’ style of impressionistic narration, which captures its material from a gradually shifting perspective, as if the vignettes are being passed by on a speed-restricted train. There’s no urge to provide every detail or over-describe, no imperative to put too much flesh on the bones of the world being evoked. Who, for example, is the subject of the canon-like ‘Junk Shop Clothes’, garments which "will get you nowhere / No summer pavilion / No shooting season"? Who is the victim of the "varied rich/ and famous crime" alluded to by ‘Housebreaker’? Enough is put forward to convey a mood and a sense of creeping unease, but there’s a raconteur’s wisdom to the minimalism. There are enough novels which seek to omnisciently present a reality in its naked entirety: New Wave opts instead for poetics apt to lives half-seen and quarter-known which still manage to linger in the imagination. In fact, the sensation conjured by the record on the whole is that of half-forgotten souvenirs – some traumatic, some merely enigmatic – from childhood, a seam of deformed nostalgia that Haines has continued to mine into the present day.   

Bearing this unease, the music is notable both as a template for Britpop’s antimodernist arrangements and as an avant-la-lettre condemnation of overproduced guitar stodge. Eerie elegance prevails as the striking note of the record: the guitars plot brittle geometries while resisting virtuosity or offer footholds of blocky chords, the drums alternate between a propulsive and restraining function, James Banbury’s cello – the last good cello in 90s guitar music, for that matter – adds a melancholy which is never allowed to become mawk. ‘Starstruck’ could be the echt Auteurs song, its ebb and flow wrapped in a threadbare tinsel of (high-) pitched percussion as Haines voice sparks a dissonance of mood, an alchemy of invested sadness and comfortably distanced disdain. From the snarkier end of the band’s body of work, ‘Idiot Brother’ is a spiky canter through an imminence of petit bourgeois catastrophe which reminds the listener that the landscape of the Auteurs resembles a Surrey satellite town at least as much as Camden. Retrospectively, you could almost see Haines as the collective unconscious of Hyacinth Bucket and Gordon Brittas.

The best aspect of the expanded reissue is the appending of a radio session from January 1993 which features ‘New French Girlfriend’ – Haines at his most fantastically sneery – and ‘Government Bookstore’ alongside versions of ‘How Could I Be Wrong’ and ‘Junk Shop Clothes’. There are also several acoustic versions and 4-track demos, the latter presumably included as a way of highlighting the ‘pure’ quality of the songwriting – something I suspect was never really in dispute. Beyond the extras, New Wave now stands as an important document not only of the alienated national mood which preceded Cool Britannia, but as a well-formed pre-emptive corrective to the worst of Britpop.   

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today