Twelve sumptuous tragedies bedevil the Auteurs’ quasi-concept album, After Murder Park, released in 1996. This darker, more caustic effort resulted from an accident that occurred while the Auteurs’ frontman, Luke Haines, was suffering from acute stress touring their previous album. The story goes that he decided to let destiny determine whether the tour would continue by jumping from a 15 foot wall onto an undetermined surface. Colliding with concrete, he broke both his ankles and was told by doctors he might never walk again. The ‘ugly and brutal’ songs that would eventually become their third album emerged during his yearlong recuperation. While After Murder Park is an extension of the Auteurs’ earlier work, it is heavier, both in music and subject matter.
Haines’ unique worldview shines through, as his music manages to sound grim and grungy whilst overflowing with catchy hooks. Perhaps recalling ‘American Guitars’ from their debut, the Auteurs called in Steve Albini, noted producer of Nirvana and the Pixies. Surely this partnership is responsible for their departure from thoughtful chamber rock to a more aggressive din, Albini’s musical calling card. However, it is a transformation that envelops these songs in a dirty feedback fog that creates the ideal ambiance for Luke Haines’ gritty characters — his terrorists, wife beaters, killers, and damaged minds. After Murder Park projects a sense of sophisticated danger and compelling morbidity in its fascination with the corrupt side of humanity. Never has there been such a sweet collection of songs about child murders, failing aircraft, and the suicides of unhappy young brides. Unlike the previous two albums, these songs are less preoccupied with class; Haines’ new obsession is the many facets of criminal activity. Terrorism, political intrigue, and organized crime are themes he would later revisit with his Baader Meinhof project. What results is the most wickedly perverse of all the Auteurs’ albums and as anti-Britpop as you can get.
With each album, the Auteurs have added further layers to their signature sound, the intricate chamber pop of 1993’s New Wave. Their follow-up, Now I’m A Cowboy, built upon that sound while illuminating a 1970s glam influence. This record has not abandoned those elements that defined their earlier work. After Murder Park‘s guitars are swamped in light distortion, and its clamorous drums may seem in contrast with the lush strings, organs, and occasional horn. However, their unique melding of modern with classical is what makes this so dynamic.
The one certainty of any Auteurs album, and indeed any recorded by Luke Haines, is that they all have killer openers. ‘Light Aircraft On Fire’ is the record’s blazing start. Kinetic guitars fizzle with fuzzy reverb, like a swirling vapour trail, as the song fades into a majestic tailspin. ‘Child Brides’ is more characteristic with its acoustic strumming accented by atmospheric, echoing backing vocals. The tragic events continue to accumulate after the metaphorical aeronautic accident of the previous song. The suicides of a group of child brides might not make international headlines, but it’s an act of desperation that would forever haunt any cursed town. The song is downright ghostly with its chilling incantation, ‘I’ll see you on the other side.’
Several songs on the album take a jab at the Britpop scene, which Haines had been at odds with since he purportedly invented it. ‘Tombstone’ begins with Haines’ fantasy of the bombing of the Columbia Hotel, the infamous celebrity flophouse immortalized by Oasis. ‘Land Lovers’ begins as a humble British folk tune. The acoustic guitar and cello play off each other until they are split wide open with a crisp, undulating lead guitar. The verses maintain a traditional folk tempo, while the exhilarating chorus speeds up with a booming beat. ‘New Brat In Town’ is even more powerful and hollow. Its slurring guitar solo metamorphoses into an outro fade that is like a toxic gas leak, perhaps spraying yet from that ‘Light Aircraft On Fire.’ A Thatcherite politician is the subject of ‘Everything You Say Will Destroy You.’ Haines warns the self-righteous figure that ‘the man from Reuters [is] here to nullify your glow’ because ‘everything you say will destroy you anyway.’
On to the next dead body. ‘Unsolved Child Murder’ is the Auteurs’ take on the Smiths’ ‘Suffer Little Children.’ A town haunted by the tragic murder of a child may not sound like a winning subject for a pop song, but Haines trounces such conventions. With its pronounced cello accompaniment, this is a beautiful treatment of a morbid subject: a murder of a child whose body was never recovered. This serves as both an evocative narrative and Haines’ reminiscence of a long-forgotten childhood memory. The lyrics begin with a newspaper headline, then brilliantly shift perspective between the perpetrator of the crime and the parents of the victim. ‘Married To A Lazy Lover’ is one of the highlights of the album. Political intrigue lurks beneath the surface of what appears to be the mundane kitchen sink drama of domestic abuse. Haines’ voice is positively serpentine as it caresses the gentle cello and surges towards its apocalyptic guitar solo. ‘Buddha’ has Haines wailing over a soupy, psychedelic organ base. His screeching guitar braces the entire song with the most subtle reggae rhythm. ‘Dead Sea Navigators,’ another ode to his Britpop peers, is a twisted sea shanty with suspenseful flamenco guitar and theatrical strings. You can practically feel the rough waves tossing our boat across the murky sea. The album’s conclusion, ‘After Murder Park,’ is the happiest song about dead children that you’ll ever hear. It’s a fitting reprisal to the motif of youth butchery introduced in ‘Unsolved Child Murder.’
Musically, After Murder Park is more varied than the Auteurs’ two previous albums, though it includes the lingering remnants of the jangly acoustic strum of their debut, New Wave. In turn, it offers a hint at the glam influence later featured on their robust final album, How I Learned To Love The Bootboys. ‘I wanted glamour, not tragic rock n’ roll,’ Haines laments in ‘Tombstone.’ In After Murder Park, it looks like he found both.