England under the knife: the second great British pop album of 1999 is a sick and bruised twin of the first. XTC’s Apple Venus painted England as a rustic, mystic utopia, where lives find rest and satisfaction in changeless countryside ritual. How I Learned To Love The Bootboys is its twisted counterpoint, with thwarted ambitions, stillborn hopes and a thousand pointless personal defeats congregating sullenly in the sidestreets and alleyways of that perpetual suburb of pop culture, the Nineteen-Seventies.

Why the Seventies? It’s when Luke Haines grew up, obviously, but it’s also a particularly damp, dark time for British mass culture, when the illusion of national relevancy brought on by the Sixties boom had collapsed. What we, who never properly lived through it, remember from that time is political failure and cultural trivia – chopper bikes, top trumps, Posh Paws, Richard Allen, the three day week, Lieutenant Pigeon, The Rubettes….and this is where Haines comes in.

The minutiae of the Seventies are all that survives of the era in our perpetual, carnival present, and so Haines focusses on them, but he gets the mood right too. Haines’ curdled Britain is the same Britain you see in Gordon Burn’s book on Fred and Rose West, Happy Like Murderers, a country of joyless, pinched lives; the timid and the luckless stumbling about in the dark, then disappearing. sometimes suddenly. Violence, and violent crime, are always bubbling away under the Auteurs’ stark, simple music. Not any more the glam anarcho-violence of Ulrike Meinhof or the Red Army Faction, but a sadder, more rotten kind which the way Haines sings it is lodged in the culture like a splinter. Kids lured into cars and tied up in the boot; suburban kickings on a Saturday night; amateur hitmen hired outside concrete-walled pubs; garage suicides and unwanted gropes.

Where are these bootboys? ‘At tne end of the road / At the top of the charts’ : everything connects, pop music and everyday life most of all. Haines despises the mythology of pop but he can’t get away from it – for every ‘The Rubettes’, where ordinary kids find pop music mocking their attempts to get (it) on, there’s a ‘Future Generation’, which finds Luke hoping, grudgefully, for better times ahead. At times pop mystery and Haines’ repulsed vision blend: ‘Johnny And The Hurricanes’ is a feverish spell, a four minute curse in which Haines has visions of early deaths, black masses, and pop itself sinking back to the smug fifties bonhomie from whence it came. ‘The future’s 1955’ he sings, looking around himself at a sewn-up music business riddled with nostalgia bores, thinking back to the Meek/Parnes era.

Wild interpretation, of course: I should stick to the music, since the lyrics are so cryptic, personal and detailed. And the music is malnourished, in places queasy, but surprisingly varied. The title track resurrects PIL’s paranoid punk-dub lurch with impressive accuracy, ‘Some Changes’ is all over-the-top flourishing and keyboard power chords, ‘Sick Of Hare Krishna’ a spindly acoustic reverie. With five albums behind him, Haines has a tight grip on what exactly he wants from his sound, and knows his limitations. He works his below-average voice to good effect, too, turning its weakness into virulence. Most effective of all is ‘The Rubettes’ and its sickly, desperate reprise, ‘Lights Out’, warping a classically cheesy seventies pop chorus into a ghastly sneer, then surrounding it with taut, thin-sounding guitar pop.

It’s an excellent album, with a couple of caveats – minorly, it sags two-thirds of the way through, with the boring ‘The South Will Rise Again’, where Haines can’t cope with his own scansion, and with ‘Asti Spumante’, whose cut-up lyrics read like Cornershop doing Manics parodies. And more pointedly, there’s a danger in doing this kind of thing that you’ll end up sounding too aloof from the crapness you’re describing (like Bono or Thom Yorke) or that you’ll end up somehow glorifying your grimy subject matter. I think Haines gets away with it, just about, but he’s fallen into both these traps before, with Black Box Recorder and more forgiveably Baader Meinhof. His basic message remains undiluted: England was horrible in the seventies, and it’s scarcely less so now. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise.