English bands must be immune to the lamentable sophomore slump; some of the best British records are of the highly-challenging second variety. The Auteurs’ 1994 album, Now I’m A Cowboy, galloped into the musical pasture, lassoing in some of the most haunting songs written since their debut one year earlier. In just one measly year, the Auteurs’ auteur, Luke Haines, managed to embellish their signature sound with a heavier glam guitar, creating a brash soundtrack to his lyrics so sharp they border on deadly. Cowboy continues to build upon the themes first introduced in New Wave, most notably the great division between the classes. Haines’ Ray Davies-inspired vignettes of the haves and haven’ts describe drug dealers and thrift shop thieves mingling with twenty-one year old heiresses, chauffeurs, and horse guards. Musically, the Auteurs have maintained a similar juxtaposition of the high and low brow. Their refined chamber music is now tempered with more boldly swelling guitars than on their debut. It might be slightly less refined, but it’s no less tortured.
The album opens with the band’s biggest hit. ‘Lenny Valentino’ is spine-tingling in its intensity, with its slasher movie strings accentuating Luke Haines’ vaguely threatening snarl. ‘New French Girlfriend’ is a seductive burst of Baroque pop. Haines’ serpentine vocals lend a suspenseful air to its brooding melody. While the musical arrangements have become rawer, tauter, and sexier, the real highlight of the album is Luke Haines’ seething and intellectual lyrics. ‘A poet is the only thief…You’re a thief with style,’ Haines sneers (at himself?) in ‘Brainchild.’ Taking Morrissey’s cerebral lyricism one step further, Haines’ prefers to directly name check literary and artistic figures as if they were modern day celebrities. Artists like Chaim Soutine and Toulouse-Lautrec are mentioned alongside the Beat writers and Truman Capote. ‘Chinese Bakery’ is one such song that has an impressive cast of characters. It’s a sordid rocker name dropping Toulouse-Lautrec, the three wise men, and Bob Dylan as Haines has us zig-zagging uptown and downtown in search of the truth. ‘Modern History’ may or may not refer to the surrealistic Beat writer, William S. Burroughs, who, too, spent a lifetime ‘cutting up words.’ Remember Haines’ preoccupation with social class struggle? He revisits the theme yet again in ‘Underground Movies,’ a song about the type of young woman with a rich lawyer father who pays for her posh Notting Hill home. By comparison, Haines aligns himself with the petite bourgeoisie, almost bragging that, ‘For years, I lived in a flat without water running.’ The grand centerpiece of the album is ‘The Upper Classes.’ It is an epic elaboration on Haines’ lyrical obsession with class culture and his contempt for those with privilege. His seething spite for people who ‘live in houses behind trees’ is subtly diluted by James Banbury’s sighing cello accompaniment.
Now I’m a Cowboy is the perfect bridge between the Auteurs’ chamber pop past and their darker future. In ‘The Upper Classes,’ Luke Haines might have ironically chided that ‘you can get so far with a perishing wit,’ but it’s apparent that his perishing wit would help the Auteurs retain their status as critical favorites through their last album.