The much-awaited (by me) new album from Jack, released across Europe in May 2002 on Les Disques du Crepuscule (Twilight Records) -- a sort-of Belgian relative of Factory Records, faintly legendary in the early 80s for putting out records by Cabaret Voltaire, Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio.

  1. The End Of The Way It's Always Been (feat. Kirk Lake)
  2. The Emperor Of New London (feat. Dan Fante)
  3. With You I'm Nothing
  4. Disco-Cafe-Society
  5. That's The Way We Make It
  6. Maybe My Love Doesn't Answer Anything In You Anymore
  7. Sleepin' Makes Me Thirsty
  8. Sometimes
  9. No North Left

Of these, Disco-Cafe-Society and Sometimes have already seen release, on 2000's La Belle et la Discotheque EP (Acuarela nois010,) but they've been re-recorded and generally jigged about with for this new album.

"Fuck it! Fucking shit!" -- so begins the first track on this LP of experimentation, epic balladry and fun. An electronic hi-hat ticks like a metronome, and sampled machinery forms an unlikely beat. An acoustic guitar is strummed hesitantly somewhere in the background, and while the ranting continues there is suddenly a noise like the inside of a submarine, warm and bassy, filling your head, thundering and inescapable. The first tune is introduced -- on melodica. Whispery, treated vocals sing along: "Bad dreams are bass in shallow water, swimming underground asleep against the morning," but all this is still just prelude to the main event.

Kirk Lake, notable London poet, is our narrator for this nightmarish elegy, and his crunching, world-weary voice lends a broken, tragic edge to an opening track (hardly a song) that broods and builds, layer upon layer, like a gathering storm, for an enthralling, unbearably tense five whole minutes before launching into a climax of sheer noise that only keeps on getting noisier. Six and a half minutes in and we catch our first glimpse of lead singer Anthony Reynold's splendid baritone, gradually bringing calm to the song as he croons, "This is the end, of the way things have always been."

Jack have never sounded like this before. They foreshadowed it with ...of Lights, that anomalous opening track on their 1996 debut, Pioneer Soundtracks, and there are definite similarities here: both songs share a degree of white noise, a prolonged build-and-fade structure, and a background atmospheric collaged from indistinct layered vocals. The fact is even recognised, obliquely, with a hidden lyrical reference to the earlier song. But if ...of Lights was startling, this more fully developed working of the idea is exceptional.

The six or seven piece band of yore is no more, and Jack is reduced to a duo, Anthony and longstanding guitarist collaborator Matthew Scott. One could be forgiven for taking the first track, and even the album as a whole, as a statement of intent; the end of the old Jack, the way they've always been, but it's a step rather than a leap forwards, and for the most part these songs are identifiable with the old Jack.

As one experiment ends, the next begins, and despite all I've said, The Emperor Of New London is totally unlike anything Jack have ever done. It's even danceable, more or less. Dan Fante, son of legendary American novelist John narrates in a grizzled, matter-of-fact way, including the classic moment of the album's first half: "I'm so fucking high. Death wouldn't dare interrupt me now!" Matthew layers his guitars like a craftsman, spooling a fuzzed-up melody over Dan's voice in the choruses. "You know why they call me ugly? It's because I run faster than beauty."

We are back in more traditional Jack territory for the slow-burning but delicious With You I'm Nothing, and Disco-Cafe Society proves one of the weaker cuts here -- a rocking song, but I'd go for the La Belle et la Discotheque version every time.

That's The Way We Make It harks back to Anthony's solo side-project, Jacques, in its melancholic, slow 6/8 swing, but that's no bad thing and the chorus shows a bit of Jack exuberance. There's a gloriously understated brass postlude for balance, one of the calmest and most beautiful pieces of music the album has to offer. This song, and the still reflective but more upbeat one which follows, constitute the album's emotional core, and show how Anthony's moved on since the days of the First Son who "cut his hair with razors and talc."

Sleepin' Makes Me Thirsty is an old-style rocker, though, and in one of the catchiest songs here, Anthony recalls his youthful indulgences from a more mature standpoint. Lyrical gems abound, most memorably "Waking up's a lot like dying, can't be stopped but we're still trying." Sometimes is more low-key, a gorgeous, soulful ballad.

And that leaves No North Left to round off this exquisite collection, returning to the experimental sound of the early tracks, but in the more tender idiom of an epic love song. The electronic drum sounds that figure variously throughout return, in this sprawling panoramic trip around the world, perhaps the shortest-seeming 10 minutes listening to music you'll ever spend.

Pioneer Soundtracks is Jack's most immediately accessible album, and The End Of The Way It's Always Been doesn't change that. But that's not to say it's a difficult album in any respect; I had great difficulty getting into the second album, 1998's The Jazz Age, and no such problems with this one. Both can be heavy-going at points, but this benefits from its many more varied textures; the exciting feeling of a band experimenting and doing what they love doesn't hurt either.

Shame about that seemingly inescapable critical acclaim and poor sales dumpster they've been stuck in for so long, but if there's any justice in the world, future generations will look back and reclaim this genius, this band, and this beautiful, meaningful music.

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