Sarah Nixey is known to have performed mime as a drama student. The three most treasured albums in her collection are Lou Reed’s Berlin, Nico’s The Marble Index, and Madonna’s Like a Virgin. The one no one else has is Vintage Children’s Nursery Rhymes. Her right eye features prominently in the logo of another of bandmate John Moore’s business ventures, which involves marketing high-end absinthe in Britannia. She played Glastonbury in a tight white plastic or latex jumpsuit that crossed love doll with crash test dummy. Where bandmate Luke Haines’s voice, such as it is, apes the alienated lower-class artiness of Laurence Harvey and David Bowie, Nixey sings properly and prettily, not quite posh but not merely genteel either. Often she just recites in her precise accent or carries her tunes in a whispered singsong à la Claudine Longet or maybe Olivia Newton-John. But unlike Haines, she projects a musicality that’s theoretically pop-friendly. Hence, the title track from Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life went top 20 in the U.K., where pop has long conformed to theories that don’t compute on this side of the divide.
Black Box Recorder is one of a long line of U.K. bands in which an attractive woman sings up front and a male musical mastermind or two plays behind: Think Yaz, Eurythmics, Everything but the Girl, Saint Etienne, M People, Portishead, Morcheeba. But rarely has the woman contributed as little apparent content as Nixey. Alison Moyet and Tracey Thorn were always active songwriters; Annie Lennox was always a 50-50 collaborator; Beth Gibbons always provided the lyrics; Skye Edwards always composed as an equal partner. Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell—whose affect is closest to Nixey’s, although deployed less self-consciously—was contributing crucial songs by album two. Only M People’s Heather Small seems stuck in the traditional mouthpiece role, ventriloquizing male notions of female identity. Nowadays educated girls like Nixey rarely keep their own counsel forever. But this is such a perverse little project—small talk as the plane crashes, the name says—that I wouldn’t put it past her to defy good feminist expectations. She was a mime, after all. And she is the making of the band regardless.
Nobody discusses Black Box Recorder without bringing in the Auteurs, and I wouldn’t think of it. But after weeks of pondering why I’d A-listed New Wave, reassessing the follow-up I once liked less, suffering through the bad Steve Albini product I’d missed, and getting to know the Haines-coproduced album that never came out here, I feel obliged to emphasize that (a) Black Box Recorder is not an Auteurs “side project” like 1997’s Baader Meinhof and (b) co-Auteurs James Banbury, Alice Readmon, and Barney C. Rockford should attend to their career opportunities. Not that there aren’t brainy songs attached to hummable tunes on these alt-guitar records; not, indeed, that an egotist like Haines can be expected to close the group down. But the contrast is stark. Haines is at best an undeveloped singer; his closest model, Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, regularly revved his world-weary drawl into power effects the younger naysayer wouldn’t dare in the privacy of his own shower. And though each Auteurs album is produced differently, the drone of the auteur’s voice and guitar always predominates—nothing in the band’s sound or beat will ever pull punters in off the street. Musical avenues of identification closed, the Auteurs’ cult, which at its mid-’90s peak numbered 20,000 apiece in the U.S., U.K., and EU, is limited to active admirers of his literary output.
Up against blowhards like Primal Scream and Happy Mondays, the knowing disaffection of Haines’s fictions earned him some instant respect. So did his propensity for human-scale songs—although he tackled the geopolitical in the acridly noncommittal Baader Meinhof cycle and regularly indulges an annoying murder tic, he avoided the myth-mongering grandiosity that has long endeared Nick Cave to many pretentious assholes and a few pretentious geniuses. But in the end he’s not enough of a writer to keep even logocentric next-big-thingers interested on words alone—he doesn’t command the language, the eye, the insight, or the social analysis. As if to mark the end of this particular tether, the Auteurs’ 1999 album, How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, ventures into the diaristic, as in this telling quatrain: “This kid comes up to me/Says ‘You’ve got to raise your game’/The kid is half my age/’Pleased to meet you Mr. Haines.’ ”
By then Haines knew what was up. Released in 1998, Black Box Recorder’s England Made Me barely acknowledged the boho losers, lovers on autodestruct, and random small-timers who populated the Auteurs’ oeuvre. Exploiting Nixey’s gender and BBC English, not to mention the detached sexual allure some were sure to read into the combo as here configured, Haines wrote a group of songs about upper-middle-class dislocation, mostly from a female point of view: several runaways, a slumming joyrider, an unfit unwed mother, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, many lives of quiet desperation, and the blank complacency of “Ideal Home” followed immediately by the chilly tale of a privileged girl who’d rather be put away than endure what she considers her parents’ “deceit.” Revealing the ugly truths beneath smooth surfaces is a banal project, but because the unflappable vocals are the musical equivalent of the surfaces under scrutiny, the songs are troubling, amusing, fascinating, deeply odd. And because Nixey’s tone never gives the game away, she leaves open the perverse possibility that the music is truth and the words ugly lies.
Instrumentally, Black Box Recorder are also completely unlike the Auteurs. Spare and keyb-based, they’re not just quiet but gentle, favoring folkish guitar figures, high organ/flute/string touches, subtle samples—far too tasteful and low-rent for modern pop, but recognizable as an arty take on same. Although Haines was once a piano prodigy and nobody mentions John Moore much, I assume this sound is where the born-again Jesus and Mary Chainer earns his cocomposing credits, and if not it’s still a lot more striking than the Auteurs’ cello-tinged Velvets-Kinks strummage. Though lighter on the samples and hookier in the choruses than England Made Me, The Facts of Life sticks to the program. Vince from Harrogate, England, nailed its appeal when he told amazon.co.uk it was “a very peaceful and relaxing album, extremely good when listened to in bed.” Picture Vince lying there; imagine that he’s the guy who posted the lyrics—on Auteurs CDs Haines always provided cribs, but with the BBC up top, why bother, right?—with “precocious” as “precautious” and “chivalry” as “shivering.” Black Box Recorder have their work cut out for them, clearly. But on The Facts of Life they mean to reach that kid, and the effort serves them well.
As it more or less announces, The Facts of Life is about erotic exploration—not a concept album, more an advice album. For seven of its 11 tracks proper (the two bonus U.S.-onlys would fit better on the debut), Nixey plays varyingly innocent young females staking out sexual space—and, on the title track, the mother of two adolescent boys whose parallel struggles will make Vince wince if he ever gets out of his bedroom. This is a rather surprising tack for the professionally jaded Haines, Jesus and Mary’s personal absinthe tycoon, and a sometime love doll whose favorite albums are Berlin and The Marble Index (although the Like a Virgin connection works). But they bring it off with a remarkable synthesis of decency and edge. Just for undermining the myth of casual sex, the nudge-nudge wink-wink that convinces the inexperienced that other people fuck as easily as they tie their shoes, they deserve a merit badge. The three driving metaphors—going too fast, a weekend away that could go any way, and not knowing when the journey’s over—are droll, seductive, and redolent. The intimations of the homoerotic, the impossible wet dreams, the first kiss like a peace pact, the last kiss like swallowing a mickey—these are complex, cautionary tales, but they’re also sexy. Lie in bed thinking about them and you may learn something even if you know it all. Immerse in their mood and you may get turned on.
Not by Nixey, necessarily—I’ve never warmed to girls who wear their class on their tonsils myself. But unlike the musclehead reviewer in Arizona who branded this album “morose,” “cynical,” “lifeless,” “dull,” “plodding,” “emotionless,” “sterile,” and (ooh, that hurts) “affected”—none of which, except for the last, it is—I’ve learned to take sex as it comes, which, as with music, often isn’t like you were just fantasizing. And unlike the tin-eared buffoons nationwide who think every chick with an English accent is raring to put them down, I listen to Nixey’s careful tone and caring words and find kindness there. Realistically, she thinks girls have it hardest in this rite of passage. But here she is on a boy phoning for a date: “Now’s the time to deal with the fear of being rejected/No one gets through life without being hurt/At this point the boy who’s listening to this song is probably saying/That it’s easier said than done and it’s true.” If it takes BBC noblesse oblige to put that kind of lesson across, I can deal with it. If it takes Brit art-pop, ditto. There’s never been an album like this, really. Take it as it comes.