BLACK BOX RECORDERThe Facts of Life (Nude)
For all its digitized gloss, the title track of Black Box Recorder’s second album is essentially an update of the Waitresses‘ pricktease classic “I Know What Boys Like,” as anti-diva Sarah Nixey, whose icy speaking voice could make de Sade’s Justine sound like an appliance manual, alternates between withering dissections of puberty (“Experimentation, familiarization . . . it‘s just a nature walk”) and schoolgirl suggestiveness (“I’ll let you hold my hand”). Arch, yes, but also genuinely pop, thanks to a swaying electro-beat that might fit on a Take That record. (Don‘t trust me; the single was a Top 20 hit in England.)
Most of The Facts of Life isn’t quite so calculatedly chartbound, but it‘s still a plusher ride than England Made Me, BBR’s excellent but side-project-ish 1998 debut. That album revisited themes of ennui and terrorism left over from AuteursBaader-Meinhof songwriter Luke Haines‘ previous work, to the tune of Spartan trip-hop. This time, guitars make way for sugared keyboards, and layers of echo cushion drummer John Moore’s previously bone-dry beats. This increased slickness means that the irony sometimes pours where it could drip, especially on a few of the sunnier choruses (“It‘s a beautiful morning, it’s a beautiful day”).
On the other hand, it‘s the perfect foil for both Haines and Moore’s often grim material and Nixey‘s barbiturated delivery. In the course of the album, she weighs the advantages of a “Straight Life” and just barely decides not to jump off a building (“French Rock ’n‘ Roll”), only to accept the invitation of two drowned Victorians (“The Deverell Twins”) to join her beneath the Thames. But the best songs expand on the single’s will-she-or-won‘t-she persona: In one, she warns an adolescent suitor, “If we’re heard, if we‘re seen, you might forfeit your first kiss,” while another is a rudely interrupted porn fantasy: “Girl on girl, girls on top . . . in your dreams.” It’s as distastefully real as anyone‘s first fumbles toward carnal knowledge — and almost as compelling.