Black Box Recorder, currently being bruited about as the very last word in detached cool, is a grim trio indeed. "Child Psychology," the first single from its 1999 debut, England Made Me, got banned from UK radio for the line "Life is unfair/Kill yourself, or get over it"; MTV banned the video here in the States for the same reason, until BBR agreed to scramble the line. The songs on its follow-up are similarly morose and cynical: "The English Motorway" metaphorizes a doomed relationship as a confusing highway snarl, and the title cut consists of little but vocalist Sarah Nixey reading a list of her terrible everyday battles in a flat monotone.
But it's not that Black Box Recorder's topics are unremittingly bleak that makes The Facts of Life a bad record; it's that the album is so damned lifeless. This is the sound of a slightly overweight middle-aged man who can't let go of his Cure ticket stubs, staring intently at the wood grain in the floor for four hours straight. This is the sound of the poetry you used to write when you were in high school and didn't know how to talk to anybody, and you spent your study hall periods scribbling "Come thou to my empty arms o ghostly lover Death" into a spiral notebook. This is the sound of a million Mission UK fans caught in a rainstorm. This is the sound of a starch-heavy diet. This is the sound of the Jesus and Mary Chain sliding headfirst into second, plowing into Julian Cope at the All-Star Morose Rockers' Softball Benefit. The Facts of Life is, simply put so my meaning cannot be misconstrued, a dull, plodding, emotionless record, full of (repetitive) sound but absolutely no fury. It toileth not, neither doth it spin.
Somewhere within Black Box Recorder's own incoherent press kit is the key to why The Facts of Life sounds utterly devoid of both. It is BBR's intention, we're told, to sound "monumentally normal" (well, score one), that Sarah Nixey sings like she's in a state of "hysterical boredom" (which is one step removed from "fervent apathy," I suppose), that the band has "catapulted themselves into some netherworld" (which is simply bad English; they might as well "plummet to a new high") -- it is to weep, to go on describing this foolishness. The instrumentation, all wheedly guitars and drum machines, is as sterile as a surgeon's tool. Nixey's voice, which isn't unpleasant, is nonetheless so cold and reserved that in this particular mix it ends up sounding like an aural approximation of off-white wallpaper; it's neither pretty nor distracting, it's just there, and it's hard to care about one way or the other. That BBR's topics purport to be about pain and death and suicide only makes the monotony of its delivery more marked.
If you're planning on dying in some banal autoerotic asphyxiation suicide pact, this is definitely the album to have playing when the cops find your body. Barring that circumstance, however -- that is, if you've still got any damn thing to live for -- you're better off buying some old Nick Cave albums. Anyone who'd get any use out of The Facts of Life has probably already spent the money on pancake makeup and billowy pirate blouses anyway; the damn thing is so affected it ought to come packaged with a carton of clove cigarettes.