The band whose name drives SpellCheck nuts reexamines its history, finally, thankfully.
After sitting on one of the most prolific catalogs of modern rock for almost 10 years, Sony finally got off their duffs and assembled 45 RPM, a hits album for The The, the chameleonic brainchild of one Matt Johnson. Ironically, 45 RPM is a better purchase for those who already have all of The The’s albums than a casual fan, thanks to the decision to go with remix edits and alternate versions of their hits rather than the LP or single versions that people would be more familiar with. Think of it as The The’s answer to the Beatles Anthology albums. It even has new material, though Jeff Lynne, luckily, is nowhere to be found.
There is a silver lining to the cloud here, though. The inadequacy of 45 RPM is actually a good thing, because it should lead people to explore the albums that housed the original versions of these tracks. Stop #1 on that tour should be the recently re-released Soul Mining, The The’s 1983 official debut. It’s a barnstormer of an album, and very representative of an artist’s debut. Soul Mining positively overflows with ideas, rants, doubts, fears, and more musical experimentation than most bands would dare attempt in a lifetime. It may not make the list of best records of the ‘80s, but it’s damn close, and would definitely stir some intense debate over its inclusion.
Johnson seems hell bent on messing with any convention imaginable, no matter how small. Witness the leadoff track “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)“‘s curious omission of the number ‘7’ from the countdown that opens the song. Perhaps it was left out because it’s considered a lucky number? That would certainly explain the lyrics that follow: “All my childhood dreams are bursting at the seams / And dangling about my knees”, sung in Johnson’s burly baritone and set to a thundering drum beat with a time signature that’s downright Rush-like. By the end, he’s screaming “My mind has been polluted and my energy diluted”, while the Joy Division-esque synthesizers manically climb the walls.
Soul Mining is very much of its time, with the anti-Thatcher rally cries and drum machines that were lifted from the Human League’s studio. At the same time, it’s like absolutely nothing else from 1983. Johnson’s peers were either gleefully wallowing in synth pop or turning into vampires. Only Johnson, perhaps because he has always been a little out of his mind, chose to walk that line between accessible pop (which also meant risking critical scorn) and High Art.
A dangerous high wire act, to be sure, but Johnson was clearly prepared. For every cut like “Tomorrow”, there was a pop antidote nearby like “This Is The Day”, a startlingly insightful ode to nostalgia that sounds like it was written by someone twice Johnson’s then-age of 20. Don’t let the “Da Da Da” drum beat fool you; “This Is The Day” is serious stuff. Few pop songs have the combination of hooks and smarts that it possesses: “You’ve been reading some old letters / You smile and think how much you’ve changed / All the money in the world / Couldn’t buy back those days”. How on earth does Johnson even know this yet?
“Uncertain Smile” is a love song in the obsessive vein of the word, but its bouncy drum beat and sparkling guitar are good spoonfuls of sugar to the sweet-but-sour lyrics like “As street lamps pour orange coloured shapes through your windows / A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes / Uncertain emotions force an uncertain smile”. The sentiment seems conflicted with the brimming confidence of the songwriting, especially when you add longtime Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland’s loose but sure-as-rain piano solo.
The Thatcher-bashing reaches fever pitch on “The Sinking Feeling”, with its don’t-worry-be-happy chorus of “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay / That’s gnawing at the heart of the country”. The song also has a religious tinge to it as well in the second verse: “You can’t destroy your problems by destroying yourself / Death is not the answer, for your soul may burn in hell”. It’s one of the rare instances in ‘80s modern rock, save Love & Rockets, where God and religion are actually taken seriously.
“This Is The Day” and “Uncertain Smile” may have gotten the most credit from Soul Mining, but it’s the final track, “GIANT”, that stands as the album’s finest moment. (The single “Perfect”, which was the last track on the first pressing of the Soul Mining CD, is not present on the reissue, thus marking perhaps the first time when an album is reissued but features fewer tracks than it did originally.) Opening with the aforementioned drum machine that was clearly used on “Don’t You Want Me”, “GIANT” starts chugging with a fat, hook-laden keyboard bass line that nearly lends itself to breakdancing. As Johnson breaks down in the finale with the refrain of “How can anyone know me, when I don’t even know myself”, the song slowly morphs from thinking man’s hip-hop to an African ritual, with a cacophony of drums and percussion both synthetic and organic blending with a chorus of tribal “yeah yeah yeahs”, all of which is united with the original fat keyboard bass line for nine and a half funky ass minutes. Sublime.
Soul Mining soars and dives, lashes out and curls up in the corner. It’s the work of a mad genius and blue collar working man fighting for the downtrodden. And, if nothing else, we should be grateful for Soul Mining more for what it doesn’t have than what it does have; Johnson’s original plan was to recruit mate Johnny Marr into the band (something he eventually succeeded in doing in 1989). Had that happened, we never would have had the Smiths. Oh, the horror.