No one’s gonna say anything very nice

If you were forced, at knife point, to make a definitive prediction for 2020 that is 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 is much rejoicing along the river of dead fish tonight since Mr. Maserati is officially back to his dirty tricks with a new album, The Night Chancers, lined up for March and this delicious lead-off single and it’s totally on-brand video. 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’s a whole lot of rejoicing to do right from the very first snare snap on this track. And if you have no idea who or what I’m rambling about (“who the fuck is ‘the eye doctor’ and what’s with that ‘river of dead fish’ gibberish?”) then this song serves as a fine entry point through the grimy velvet curtains and into the discography of the urban goose himself, Baxter Dury.

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 Gainsbourg-ian 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. If we’re going by this single, Prince Of Tears wasn’t so much a career highlight as it was a stepping stone to this. While 2017’s Dury could easily have come up with the “charm dripping like fresh honey, I’m the milky bar kid, soiled trousers” lead-off (indeed this may be a nod of the hat back to POT, establishing context before the blast off), he certainly wouldn’t have been on the whole “murder shoes, dirty eyes sizing up” kick. 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. Where he was previously an agitator, Dury is now a poet.

There can be no doubt that poverty is all the rage these days. As the have not masses expand to gain a power and voice through sheer numbers that makes the haves start fearing the clink of the guillotine, DNA stands of revolutionary ideals have seeped back into popular music in a major way, an earnest pragmatism that hasn’t been seen since the folk movement of the early ’60s. There is no greater outsider than a musician, after all, and from glossy radio pop to hyper-violent Soundcloud rap to precocious white indie kidz, artists and their followers are fully on the side of The People this fall and early winter. Look no further than the recent (admittedly truly hilarious) “outrage” over the revelation that the stoner dude from Wavves is now a landlord gentrifyer to see where the music world’s head is at these dark days. So 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.

Daniel Falatko