The title of Black Box Recorder's 1998 debut was England Made Me, and perhaps never before or since has an album title served so utterly and functionally to describe a band's obsessions. Having lived in London for two years, during a period bracketed by the death of Di on one end, the slow, croaking demise of Britpop through the middle and the emergence of Simon Cowell on the last hole, this reviewer has a muddling grasp of what, precisely, BBR's evil genius Luke Haines has been pissing on about lo these many years. And on Passionoia, though some of his rapier-sharp gibes puncture universal balloons (celebrity culture is the target this time), for the most part the album continues to work a vein of extreme, almost provincial Britishism.
So, unless you've got a raging case of Anglophilia, which the caustic in-jokes on Passionoia only serve to deflate, there's quite a lot in Black Box Recorder's music that will pass over the head of the average American listener. (That's no insult to the average American listener, by the way; how much are we honestly expected to know about the English parochial school system, aside from some cursory readings of George Orwell?) Which leaves, well, the music. And in that regard, Passionoia is a treat, the band's most refined and catchy synthesis of Serge Gainsbourg-esque pop and slinky lounge beats. Vocalist Sarah Nixey makes like a particularly bloodless version of St. Etienne's Sarah Cracknell, and particularly on tracks such as "These are the Things," the music has a subdued, sexy shimmer. The overall effect is glacial, to understate the case, and where the lyrical themes are comprehensible to Stateside listeners, as on "Andrew Ridgley" and "The New Diana," the iciness works in favor of the parody. Elsewhere, Passionoia simply gives good background noise--which, in and of itself, may be part of the joke.