Its presence ghosts off this record like chill off the sea. The more you listen, the more obvious it gets; the more appropriate it seems. Twelve songs about different levels of letdown – alienation and betrayal; shortfall and disgust, “high fives and corporate anthems” – but always, always possessing an ability to be lifted above it; to float in a strange and tragic euphoria in which pain and torment are overwhelmed. A rush of transcendent languorous bliss while the mind hovers above, intact and unmarked.
Even if Sneaker Pimps weren’t so candid about backstage recreation (or didn’t drop lyrical hints like “my aim’s so weak that I’d fail to get into my arm”), you can’t escape the fact that their second album is a heroin album par excellence. Admittedly, a smarter and more professional brand of smack music – no William Burroughs squalor, no Needle Park lowlife. The spike goes in beside a penthouse window, lying on a sleek leather couch; no dust on the floor. But then, as a pop group, Sneaker Pimps always seemed far too smart for the daytime shows and MTV gladhandings.
Well, some of them did. I saw an Sneaker Pimps interview in which Kelli Dayton – their original Goth pixie-ette singer – sat flirting and babbling on a sofa, flanked by Chris Corner and Liam Howe. When not answering their own questions, with a cool intelligence, they observed her with the bored and slightly amazed looks of gentleman experts faced with a posturing child. The hapless Kelli isn’t part of Sneaker Pimps any more. She’s been dropped out – as if via hidden trapdoor – or simply excised.
For ‘Splinter’, Chris Corner glides forward like Dracula to take over the mic. His slackly sensual looks (young Johnny Thunders and Ronnie Wood, with a wild crow’s nest of dyed-black hair) lounge all over the artwork of ‘Splinter’, much as his lisping, artfully-forlorn whisper floats ahead of the music’s tide. Perhaps it’s just extra clarity – with Kelli no longer an oblivious mouthpiece – but ‘Splinter’ feels like cresting a roller-coaster. A swelling build of dawning clarity, darker- toned, which sets you up for the plunge.
‘Splinter’ is also the most seductive pop record I’ve heard in a long time. Not coy winks or overblown soul-boy mating calls, not even on the acid-coated, Suede-stinging-Cameo-to-death stamp of Ten To Twenty. This is a more abstract seduction, the lure of rich fabric, sweet smoke or smouldering looks. It’s born not just from the unveiling of secrets but from Liam Howe’s shockingly opulent backdrop. Creamy, orchestrated synths and samplers traced with beautifully disturbing sound. Pianos echo, fretful in the cavernous dark. ‘Omen’ choirs or wailing-wall chants lunge out at Chris, trying to lassoo him. Small slivers of Oriental melody glitter in the fabric, and beyond the luscious trip-hop grooves eerie Bernard Hermann strings are trembling, bursting, warning. Female singers, disturbingly blank, shadow Chris’ pinched tones.
The whole album’s in a state of sensual motion, like restless waters or billowing tapestries. As for mood and motif, it’s always ominous – always half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures; with sultry sicknesses and the bloody romance of despair. Kelli or no Kelli, there’s always been a Goth undercurrent to Sneaker Pimps (and not just because the industrial-tinged, reverberant rock of Superbug also has a distinct tang of The Mission). When Chris sings “strike me down, give me everything you’ve got. / Strike me down, I’ll be everything I’m not,” on Lightning Field, he sounds bright-eyed, waiting for the lash.
For Half Life’s liquid, trembling swirl of pianos and ghost orchestras, Chris muses at the syringe or at the lover he’s failing with – “half life wastes before it goes – / it’s funny how your bee-sting touch never leaves me whole. / It’s not enough to stay here, almost trying. / You kept your last laugh, watch this dying.” On the magnificently disdainful, disgusted ‘Low Five’ he delicately spits back corporate language and schmooze-talk with savage grace – “Kite-marked for true low standards / where more wants all and no less. / Just change with no real progress… / I’m a low five downsize no-one else. / Do you love yourself?”
Bad relationships. With the biz, with the needle or with girlfriends – all three bleed together in Sneaker Pimps’ crafted disaffection. Only on Cute Sushi Lunches does this seem brattish, as Chris sneers “nineteen steps out from under your feet. / Can’t eat, won’t eat… / Hate like a child hates his hair cut,” and the instruments obstruct each other, stubbornly refusing to gel… but not quite enough to derail the song.
It’s a suspect confessional, a cunning blind to absorb attack while Sneaker Pimps slip the rest of the album past your resistance. The worm-turning cruelty of Curl, popping with funk under its lustrous ballad verses, stung by zithers and pulsating psychedelic grind – “I curl to break consent… / and I curl now to help me find you out.” And the little thrusts and revelations like “never compromise – you’re just always weak”; “it takes too much to please me – / attached but no real feeling,”; and (most killingly) “failure was on me, / but your ideals bore me.” All of it wrapped in that dark and dreamy music.
Beyond the sensual overkill – that luxuriant death-by-soundtrack – the rich nightlife sounds are sometimes folded away in favour of small rooms dominated by Chris’ spider-legged acoustic guitar. Flowers And Silence is the most explicit trip to the shooting gallery. Skeletal slow jazz waltzing among the radar blips somewhere between Scott Walker and John Lydon, moth-wing vibrations of synth, and a dry-mouthed Chris murmuring “she’s nowhere, she mainlines, / helps me out – now I can speak… / So nothing’s free. / Ghost-drunk, out of reach.”
Behind the dogged strum and distant alarms of Destroying Angel, strings slither down – blood trickling across a window – while Chris turns in the most sinister performance on the record. “The stones beneath the water that you walk on to be taller, / the hands you stuck together ‘cos you prayed you’d wait forever,”, he whispers, picking apart a dying affair full of desperate power games and scams, and ruthlessly stripping it away from himself, right down to the tattoos (“the words beneath my skin / the ink that you put in, / destroying all the things you left around.”). There’s torch music on Empathy Low – as well as a rich sleazy purr of double bass – but if so it’s torch reduced to clammy ashes, as Chris stares into the recesses of his soul and finds them disturbingly bare. “Proves herself to be closer, / but not me forever, not me… / My memory’s so / Empathy low.”
And there’s Splinter itself, the guitar zinging and slapping while things prowl in the shadows – growling, creaking double bass, moaning and scraping; boiling, ghostly noises from Liam Howe’s black boxes. Then there’s Chris, flint-eyed and flint- voiced – “Does it take the fireworks to make you look in wonder? / Would you give reaction to the cause I’m under? / So coloured by you, but your monkey messed it up – / surrounded by you, your monkey’s long-while had enough.” If David Sylvian had stayed in London, corrupted by the smoke and cynicism, he might have ended up this sleekly poisonous: enveloped in beautiful, cultured ambient sound and existential melancholy, but honing a small silvery sleeve-dagger for the right moment.
The final song – Wife By Two Thousand – could be a subway busk, with one of Chris’ faceless women singing back at him from further down the tunnel. A draught sucks at it, pulling Liam’s subliminal buzzes and celesta clinks away into the oblivious sounds of a crowd. While Chris strings phrases from I Can Sing A Rainbow into the chorus (as if trying to get back to childhood assurance), the song’s an attempted seduction, in spite of everything that’s gone before. Chris is playing the vulnerable card this time, with a cynical, pleading desperation. “Never so complete, just failing on its feet… / I think that I need working on, so work on me / I feel that nothing’s getting though, so get to me.”
But the last we hear of him is a nonchalant nothing-can- hurt-me whistle. He’s disappearing into the city with his bag of secrets closed up again, leaving you to make your guesses. The kind of doomed, fascinating bastard whom your eyes still follow, and whom your hands reach out to in spite of yourself. Damn.
Trust a junkie? Never. But they can be as compelling as their habits.
Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’
Clean Up Records Ltd., CUP 040CD (5029271004024)
Released: 25th October 1999
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Available from most sources.