Baxter Dury, The Night Chancers (Rough Trade)

No one’s gonna say anything very nice

If were were forced, at knife point, to make a definitive prediction for 2020 that was 100% guaranteed to come true, then this right here would be it. And leave it to sleazy old Baxter Dury to land this simple bulls eye of truth. This comes as no surprise to the hundreds of Baxter disciples, mostly in France, who’ve been tracking the night chef’s slouchy ascension from “the son of Ian Dury who also does music” to the soiled master of slinky back room pop that emerged on 2017’s absolute classic Prince Of Tears. And there was much rejoicing along the river of dead fish in March when Mr. Maserati was officially back to his dirty tricks with a new album, The Night Chancers. If you’re like me and feared the eye doctor’s turgidly poetic spirit would be snuffed out, suffocated in the drag of the current social atmosphere, then there was a whole lot of rejoicing to do right from the very first bass slap on “I’m Not Your Dog”, followed by a swoop of dead-eyed strings, and then our man himself, alive in nicotine-stained flesh, announcing: “I’m not your fucking friend/trying to be right/trying to feel it/trying to be it” with equal parts viciousness and weary melancholy. “I’ve been following you everywhere” he confesses, before launching into a pitch perfect parable on individual self made social media prisons: “Some people like to show/Some people like to watch/and I watch a bit too much/you show too much”. All of this over a soundscape where Gainsbourg discovers trap and blesses the beats with even more filth. It’s an arresting intro, a line in the sand, a beckon forth and a stand back order all in one.

And then there’s “Slumlord”. Easily our fave 2020 track. While nobody could be certain what was festering on Dury’s brain when he stepped into the booth to record this thing, he may as well have been thinking, “I’m going to consolidate everything that was great about Prince Of Tears into one track, only make it even better, mate.” Because this is precisely what he does, like some hung over scientist adding, just for the hell of it, that one extra drop to the beaker that makes the whole apparatus boil over. Where the strings on POT sounded purposefully cheap, here they pound and stab and soar and dip with the weight of a full orchestra. The tinny grooves of the prior album have been given a full upgrade, coming on wide screen and rubbery and destined to pulse through expensive headphones. And then there’s Dury’s vocals, never his strong suit, which have somehow transcended the croaking sing-speak crutch affected on POT to attain a dark angel purr on the verses and an outright pretty tenor on the hook-rush choruses. Welcome to song production school, kids. There’s not a wasted bass slap or wash of strings or vocal utterance anywhere on “Slumlord”, all parts toiling together to achieve one deliriously catchy, if emotionally elusive, whole.

But if you know Baxter Dury you know we aren’t here for the backing music. It’s the lyrics we’re concerned with, and the postmodern word sorcery the glassy dude conjured up on Prince Of Tears is the very definition of “hard act to follow”. So how does he do on the first song off the new album? Well, in the parlance of the times, how about I just leave the first verse right here:

Charm dripping like fresh honey
I’m the milky bar kid
Soiled trousers
Shiny cheekbones like graveyards in the sun
Murder shoes
Dirty eyes sizing up

Not only do music writers now have yet another moniker to use in place of “Baxter Dury” (“On the follow up to 2020’s criminally overlooked The Night Chancers, the milky bar kid returns with UK drill beats and a pulsing dub vibe on Discount Cathedral“), but we also have concrete lyrical advancement right before our bleeding eyes. Where the lyrics on POT hinted at poetry while attempting to shock, here they drip effortlessly like, um, fresh honey, devoid of the studied, heavily workshopped undertones of the previous record. Here we have your landlord, your tormentor on your doorstep at the worst possible moment, sweaty cheekbones and stained pants and shiny shoes, sizing you up with lifeless, greed-squint eyes, about to drop some horrific bit of news or threat. Over just six lines of verse, 25 words total, Baxter Dury paints your worst nightmare in definitive form. And leave it to a slippery outlier like Baxter Dury to convincingly take on the persona of that most hated of all ruling class archetypes, the slumlord, trying on his evil baggage like a  natty suit, attacking the prototype from the inside. As the wittiest songwriter going, Dury seems to know that it’s just too easy to rail platitudes against rent-gougers. Instead he becomes one. “Unless you’ve got nothing to say, just don’t say it” he shouts down a complaining tenant. “Scary people, saying silly shit” he sums himself up, clearly reveling in the villain role like a rom com actor finally tossed a serial killer part, drawing out each syllable for maximum impact. And check out the way Dury, through the eyes of the slumlord he’s currently inhabiting, sums up the lives of his tenants in detail so hyper-specific and devastating it manages to sum up day-to-day poverty as a whole in just 13 words.

Taps on dripping
Sleeping in the daylight
Leaning out of windows
So lowlife

Of course nobody can be certain about the intentions of a work of art that isn’t their own, but to my ears “Slumlord” rings out like that rarest of all things: A cerebral protest song.

Paranoia and love go firmly hand-in-hand on Night Chancers, especially on the stunning “Saliva Dogs”, which starts of with a woman’s voice sensibly asking “Who the fuck are the polo lizards?” before shifting to Baxter’s warped pop culture ramblings (“hashtag me me”, “slapping in the PayPals”) and ending in a seemingly sincere plea: “Tell me that you loooovee meeeeeeee” all as a six note synth run hypnotizes and back alley strings lead the way to an existential crisis of epic proportions. “Night Chancers” sets up romantic longing even more starkly, showcasing the nagging practical details that tend to kill romantic opportunity: “You called from a taxi telling me how good I can be, and how much you miss me, but you’re a kilometer away” and finding our narrator with his “hands dripping with cold-cold coffee” in an all-night eatery that’s “trying to prize money off me”. And in a move of subtle musical genius that just can’t be taught, you gots it or you donts, Dury adds a breezy Casio line onto the end of the track that skews an otherwise dark journey into something light and danceable.

As the record’s creepy centerpiece, “Carla’s Got a Boyfriend” should be the voice of a stalker villain until you realize this narrator could very well be you, could very well be any of us, like a bad lighted fat mirror held directly in your face. A simple parable of a washed up dude surfing Instagram, checking out the boyfriend of an ex girlfriend turns itself into a statement on modern fear and desolation. “Carla’s got a boyfriend/he’s got horrible trousers and a small car/a bit of designer hair/sloppy facial looks/I might take care of him to be honest/Promises/I’ve made so many been so wrong/lately your eyes have left me/lost all self control” From casual observations to violent obsession to emotional paralysis in under 20 seconds, the now-normal spiral of the age.

All of this is not to say that Night Chancers isn’t a fun record. Even at its blackest depths, there’s a jaunty nihilism to behold, a downed boxer grinning through bloody teeth. “Sleep People” takes on the fashion industry in hilarious fashion, dead eyed observations (“free drinks for the pencil thin”, “through the daylight, dry lips are smiling”) floating over an airy arrangement that crashes into a 10-second free jazz freakout. Although it charts a couple fighting over possessions in a breakup, “Hello, I’m Sorry” rings comedic in Dury’s hands as he mimics tense phone conversations with devastating details, and his “Hi…..I know” greeting portrays the annoying minutia of an emotional breakdown in nearly slapstick fashion.

Chancers ends with two of Dury’s best ever tracks, the swaying “Daylight” and the urgent “Say Nothing”. On “Daylight” Dury isn’t afraid to play it straight and sincere, his gruff Eastend warbling softening into a gentle murmur. This is Dury at his most purely romantic, with a string section that sounds suspiciously like INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”, and the “left me in daylight” line rings like a lover leaving you for good in a cold park on a clear day. The slumlord is back on “Say Nothing”, and he’s speaking directly to you and your lethargy: “And I’m the slumlord/and when you sit on the side of the motorway/rain pouring down your arches/and the cars rushing past you/and you’re semi-dozing not caring”. Whether or not this is how you see yourself living your life, it’s at least an arresting accusation. Are you really just passing time on the side of the motorway? “Waiting for the life/nothing but the chancers/say nothing/say nothing/say nothing” Why indeed you are. “And I lie down/and let the cars run over my lifeless body/each wheel represents pain/necessary for all of us”. The slumlord is sacrificing himself for you, for your tongue tied and emotionally stunted ways, just as Baxter Dury is on this visceral masterwork of a record.