“Well, you got so down you went to town and bought a brand-new top. / They can take your will to live but not your will to shop. / Try to eat more ‘cos you’re hungry, and less because you’re lonely, / and don’t let that feeling fade away…”
Oxford pop pixies Holy Roman Empire seem cheerful to sell themselves as being crap. Their press-kit is full of reviews slating their appalling clothes, their mimed performances, their (allegedly) pitiful singing and their clunky tape recorders hidden inexpertly under keyboard stands. Yet they don’t half shoot themselves in the foot by coming up with such good songs.
Bloody hell – if this had shown up in 1989 it would have swept all before it. Not every song blends – so successfully – lyrics like a playful junior Morrissey with mock-pomp Carter USM Casio orchestrations and rounds it off with the cruising freeway feel of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Back then this would have been a small Holy Grail for student radio, ghosting through every university bar across the land. Here and now it can only settle for being classic, timeless pop – whatever the clothing.
In case I’ve not made my point yet – Dante’s Inferno is marvellous. It’s one of those rare songs which fey critics, hung-up on the sublime disposability of pop, always whiffle on about. Well aware of the ludicrousness that lies at the heart of obsessive passion – and of the dramatic pretensions of pop music – it still goes at it full-tilt because it knows that that’s all that matters. (As a bonus, I can still believe in the song even as I reel off this kind of posturing shite… that’s high camp for you.)
Holy Roman Empire ‘s Ste Fleming and his two foils sigh as milkily as Prefab Sprout and deftly nail the paradox of all-consuming unrequited love. “You go to the doctor, and the doctor feeds you pills. / You know you need them, but you need the pain they kill. / All because you lost somebody, but never lost the feeling, / and daren’t let that feeling fade away.” Inevitably the other two songs are anticlimactic after this glorious Moulin Rouge gesture. After all, how do you follow up a song which has a ringmaster on the chorus?
Still, Holy Roman Empire can quick-march a long way on what they’ve got. What they’ve got happens to be a batch of cheesy keyboard puffs, an upbeat chirp of melody, a vocal style best compared to a pomp version of Rod, Jane & Freddy, and some of the sharpest lyrics this side of Paddy McAloon’s teenage-fluff drawer. I Bleed Petrol (punctuated by cute car-crash sound effects) could almost be a children’s singalong. Then again, there are lines like “city kids with sicknesses, and flowers placed by roads, / melting polar icecaps and the flooded southern coasts”, suggesting that the trio have made a noose out of a skipping rope and are trotting out in search of a symbolic motorist to lynch.
No Tomorrow is a bizarrely happy-sounding love song about… yes… everything turning out shit in the end. It’s a fiddling-about with goodbye ribbons as the city burns. “I was sort of wishing – yeah, I was kind of hoping, / as the ground got closer, that my parachute would open (but no…) / ‘You have to be strong now: you have to let me go,’ / so it’s off with my head and it’s on with the show.”
You have to reckon that as long as that tinselly backcloth is still there, Ste Fleming will stay happy. Supercheese wins out, then – and mighty tasty it is too.
Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’
Bluefire Records, BLU017
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Best obtained second-hand.