Surviving the nineties
Just the other day I saw that Matt Johnson is preparing the comeback of The The (which is obviously primarily him) this fall. This October, the band will release a live album with plenty of their greatest songs, documenting a concert they played in early June.
In a way, Johnson is coming back by going back – back to the glorious days when every album was a hit record with plenty of great songwriting and excellent musicianship. Understandably so as the band couldn’t follow up on the great success of these first albums. The last we heard of them was “NakedSelf” more than ten years ago, an album that was a) not really successful and b) basically a Matt Johnson solo effort.
Bottom line is that Johnson is well advised to revisit the golden years, and we can safely assume that there are plenty of aging young sense seekers out there that have missed Johnson’s particular view on the world out there and the one inside us. Both his singing and his lyrics had that unique mixture of plaintiveness and anger, of self-doubt and an acute lack of sense and clarity, something that anyone with a functioning brain is able to relate to.
Ever since he kept repeating his almost desperate question “How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself?” on the all time classic “Giant” he was the guy that could clearly state what was clearly unclear in all of our minds.
“Dusk” didn’t let us down in that category either. Johnson’s lyrics deliver plenty of thoughts along this line. Whether it is loneliness (“Somebody should be here to hold me”), life’s never-ending contradictions (“Sometimes it seems the more I ask for the less I receive”) or dissatisfaction with the state of our world (“We’re running out of love, running out of hate, running out of space for the human race”). In Matt Johnson’s world all of these topics are interdependent – as much as he may be frustrated with the state of the planet he is equally unhappy with the state of his mind and soul. Which obviously doubles the frustration as a confused mind can’t help a confused world.
The first three albums had established The The as a band that was able to combine a certain amount of intellectualism with exceptional songwriting and put it all in a dance-compatible format. The only ones with slightly similar mixes were Depeche Mode and New Order, but Johnson had a much heavier dose of Rock in his mix, and he was leaning more towards being political in his songwriting.
“Dusk” was slightly different. Less dance, more rock, and this shift made for an album that survived the nineties (and eighties) much better than some of the preceding albums (especially “Infected” in spite of some superb songwriting). The question here is whether this is due to Johnny Marr playing a more significant role on this album or whether he just appears to be more present because the album leans more towards rock than its predecessors. Sort of a chicken-egg-problem.
But we shouldn’t really worry too much about that. “Dusk” is at least as good as the first three albums, and it would even be worth revisiting if Johnson hadn’t decided to bring the band back together (except for Johnny Marr, expectedly) – and Johnson was wise to include seven out of ten “Dusk” songs on the comeback album.
I remember when I dropped the needle for the first time to listen to the album, starting into the outstanding “True Happiness This Way Lies” with its game show parody intro and the intense presence of Johnson’s slightly over-accentuated singing, and his inimitable way of describing some fundamental flaw in human nature – always wanting and never being satisfied, all boiled down in these two lines that stuck in my mind immediately, “But when you put your arms around me I’ll be looking over your shoulder for something new.” Yes, he has a way with words.
He already had me by then, and with “Love Is Stronger Than Death” the joy only intensified. Look at that, I thought, in spite of all the conflicting thoughts described (“All the thoughts unuttered and all the feelings unexpressed play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath”) Matt Johnson surprisingly comes along as a deeply romantic guy that could write stuff like this: “How could you believe that the life within the seed that grew arms that reached and a heart that beat and lips that smiled and eyes that cried could ever die?” It was as if Johnson had somehow been able to shed a few of the dark thoughts that haunted him to make room for some love, hope and optimism.
Yes, “Dogs Of Lust” was the hit on this album and rightfully so, not necessarily because it is the best song on this album – it’s just hit material, unavoidably, with Johnny Marr contributing heavily both on guitar and harmonica, supplying some really iconic riffs to accompany Johnson’s clever and effective melodies.
The A side is like a string of pearls, the next one being “This Is The Night”, waltzing along with more excellent lyrics, the wonderful choice of a honky tonk piano and (again) great guitar riffs and solo work by Mr. Marr. Interestingly, the former Smiths-guitarist shines even more on harmonica – both “Dogs Of Lust” and the A side closer “Slow Emotion Replay” wouldn’t be half as great without Marr’s contributions. It just all comes together with great lines that slightly echo “Giant”: “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world – I don’t even know what’s going wrong with myself.” And we know: the ones that think they know just don’t really look. That’s a really, really good pop song.
There is a slight dose of darkness at the beginning of the B side and a fine piece of storytelling when Johnson slips into the role of a “Helpline Operator”, not shying away from a bit of cynicism and social critique: “Everybody’s looking for someone to tell them what they want to hear. Everybody’s looking for true love to help them feel what they cannot feel.” Needless to say that Marr’s guitar riff is superb – just like the one on “Sodium Light Baby” where Johnson delivers another iconic one-liner: “You’re the strangest feeling I ever had”.
It gets creepier on “Lung Shadows”, a song that might have just been an inspiration for MC 900 Ft. Jesus’ “Welcome To My Dream” album, deeply atmospheric and darkly fascinating – and weirdly enough, this less than happy moment is quite welcome on an otherwise poetic and predominantly positive album. “Save me” Johnson keeps pleading on “Bluer Than Midnight” – but of course he wants to be saved from himself, in a song that almost sounds like a spiritual.
The answer follows immediately: “If you can’t change the world change yourself” he chants on “Lonely Planet”, bringing Johnson’s lyrical world to full circle. How would that be possible, we start to think, how can you change yourself if you don’t even know what’s wrong with yourself? But that’s Matt Johnson for you. He is not the guy that delivers the answers, he just asks all the questions we all ask ourselves consciously and unconsciously, and his appeal had always been just that. Putting them out there for us. And don’t we just feel that little bit better once it’s out there? We’re not as confused and lonely when someone sings about loneliness and confusion.
Release for review:
THE THE – DUSK – EPIC – 472468 1
Buy the album on Discogs: Click