Remember the days when there were a few artists whose albums you would buy, no questions asked, before you heard a single note? They were so consistently good that you rushed to the record store on the Tuesday the new album was released, and finding it in the bin made your heart skip a beat. The The was that kind of artist for me.
The The was/is one person: Englishman Matt Johnson. I first became aware of him in 1982 when the 12-inch single (that’s vinyl, for you youngsters) of “Uncertain Smile” showed up at WRVU where I was a college-radio DJ. The artwork was attention-grabbing, and I put it on the turntable. The most amazingly catchy tune poured out of the monitors, and I was soon bopping round and round the tiny studio. For months afterward, whenever I made a mixtape (that’s a cassette, for you youngsters) for a friend, “Uncertain Smile” was always included.
“Uncertain Smile” was a track off of Johnson’s debut US album, Soul Mining, which is a mother lode of earworms. Every single song burrows its way into your brain with an irresistible hook that won’t let go. However, beneath the surface of these new wave/pop masterpieces, turbulence was brewing.
Johnson’s next album, 1986’s “Infected”, while maintaining the high hook-to-song ratio, was also chock-full of bile and bitterness. The title track’s chorus included the line, “So infect me with your love”. Love is a disease? Hmm…. “Heartland” comes across now as surprisingly prescient, as Johnson bemoans his country’s loss of independence: “The ammunition’s been passed/And the Lord’s been praised/But the wars on the televisions/Will never be explained/All the bankers getting’ sweaty/Beneath their white collars/As the pound in our pocket/Turns into a dollar/THIS IS THE 51ST STATE OF THE USA.”
For 1989’s Mind Bomb, Johnson put together a real band, including Johnny Marr on guitar, whose Smiths had recently imploded. Once again, the lyrics convey Johnson’s fury at religious conflicts: “But if you think that Jesus Christ is coming/Honey you’ve got another thing coming/If he ever finds out who’s hijacked his name/He’ll cut out his heart and turn in his grave/Islam is rising/The Christians mobilizing/The world is on its hands and knees/It’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds.” (Armageddon Days Are Here Again) However, alongside those rants are beautiful ballads like “Gravitate To Me”, where he croons, “I am the lighthouse/I am the sea/I am the air that you breathe/Gravitate to me.” And, as always, it all goes down easy, thanks to the gorgeous melodies wrapped around the words.
1993’s Dusk is the last of The The’s “classic” albums. It starts off with the sound of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record, and the listener is suddenly in the middle of a monologue by Johnson that sounds like it was recorded live in a comedy club. Except what he’s saying isn’t particularly funny – he sounds like he’s on the verge of being totally unhinged – and just when things begin to get really uncomfortable, he strums an acoustic guitar and sings, “Well, I’ve been crushing the symptoms/But I can’t locate the cause/Could God really be so cruel?/To give us feelings/That could never be fulfilled/Baby…” and we are off on a rollercoaster ride as Johnson explores his frustrations with love, lust, God, personal isolation, and the evil that every human is capable of .
Instead of railing against countries’ foreign policies and various religious doctrines, Johnson gets intensely personal in Dusk: “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world/But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.” (Slow Emotion Replay) In the song “Lung Shadows”, a beautiful, jazz-tinged theme plays while he softly begs repeatedly, “Come closer to me”. In “Bluer Than Midnight”, he echoes Paul as he laments, “One sin leads to another/Oh, the harder I try/I can never, never, never find peace in this life.”
The album closes with “Lonely Planet”, which features a cathartic, uplifting melody, and the chorus, “If you can’t change the world, change yourself.” It’s a powerful song that reflects the wisdom gained from looking at a fallen world with unblinking eyes, and realizing, “The world’s too big and life’s too short/to be alone .. to be alone.” In the end, simply loving someone is the greatest thing we can hope to accomplish.
One last note: in 2002, Epic/Legacy rereleased Soul Mining, Infected, Mind Bomb, and Dusk in remastered versions that are excellent. If you get all four, the slipcases form two portraits of Matt Johnson when placed side-by side (which I think is pretty cool):
And here is “Uncertain Smile” performed live: