Brilliant Colors: The Jesus and Mary Chain Beyond Psychocandy
Conventional wisdom says that Psychocandy will stand as the Jesus and Mary Chain's ultimate statement. Listening to five of their now-remastered albums in a row might make you wonder why.
Last fall, at a basement show in Philadelphia, the Portland-based electronic musician E*Rock put on a pulsating, dirty beat and stepped out from behind his laptop to sing. Slinking around in tight pants like a rock star, swinging his curly hair in and out of his face, he sang: "I can't explain / exactly what I'm doing standing in the rain..." At the song's end, someone yelled out "Jesus and Mary Chain!", recognizing it as that band's 1992 single "Far Gone and Out", and E*Rock's face showed surprise. "Wow, you're the first person who recognized that," he said, "Why doesn't anybody listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain anymore?"
It does sometimes feel like nobody listens to the Jesus and Mary Chain anymore, though certainly references to the band do show up in pop culture now and then. The film Lost in Translation drenched its parting couple in the band's 1985 track "Just Like Honey". Death Cab for Cutie cited them in a lyric, albeit one that shares that sense that they're not an "it" band today: "I remember the JAMC." And there's continually bands who musically pull from their style, whether it's the oft-cited example of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or a host of loud-soft dream-rock bands, bands that would have been called "shoegazers" a decade ago.
Another question, though, is "how closely does anyone listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain these days?" Critics are often citing them as a musical reference point, and yet those critics seldom get past their 1985 debut Psychocandy. In fact, it's an album that threatens to completely represent the Jesus and Mary Chain in the brains of today's music fans. In many ways, it's the albatross (album-tross?) around their necks, the album that lurks larger than the rest and has earned "classic" status where the rest have not.
Five Jesus and Mary Chain albums have been reissued by Rhino as DualDiscs, with three music videos per album making up the main DVD features, and no bonus audio tracks. It represents the basic stream of albums that brothers Jim and William Reid, with various others here and there, created from their start in 1985 through to 1994: Psychocandy (1985), Darklands (1987), Automatic (1989), Honey's Dead (1992) and Stoned & Dethroned (1994). It's the group's discography minus a few key elements, like their debut single, the B-sides compilation Barbed Wire Kisses and their final album Munki, released on SubPop in 1998.
These reissues don't represent the band's whole career, then, but the majority of it. Yet they still offer another chance to listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain anew. And in 2006, it's hard to hear why Psychocandy has been elevated head and shoulders above the rest. Surely there's the debut factor, whereby a band's opening statement makes the longest-lasting impression. And there's the notion that the band's rebelliousness was made most explicit on their noisiest album, by virtue of the fuzz alone. But these five albums seem like different expressions on the same face. Each crystallizes a particular style within the general style of the group. The Jesus and Mary Chain often seems like a band with one approach who enjoyed tinting it a different color each time out -- which one is the "masterpiece" depends a lot on your taste in colors. The Jesus and Mary Chain was never afraid to reproduce an idea, to recycle imagery, or to make a song that closely resembled one from their past. But they also gave each album its own demeanor. Each of these albums possesses its own style, start to finish, yet they're all part of the same animal.
The basic Jesus and Mary Chain approach can be boiled down to taking vocal pop of the '50s and '60s -- the girl groups and the Beach Boys, most obviously -- and making it sound evil, sad, aggressive, rebellious. With the exception of Stoned & Dethroned, which resembles elders coming to terms with their wild youth, Jesus and Mary Chain lyrics are dark and lusty. The black leather and fast cars of teenage rebels are continually referenced, and misfit girls are always present, considering suicide, balancing on the edge of sanity, and living their lives "in the pouring rain", to paraphrase Darklands' "About You", which continues, "and the raindrops beat out of time to our refrain". That sense of living outside of society's bounds is dominant in the world of the Jesus and Mary Chain, from the nihilism of Darklands to the addiction imagery of Automatic to the death worship described in Honey's Dead's lead-off track, with the attention-getting line, "I want to die like Jesus Christ."
The Jesus and Mary Chain - Darklands
The sex-and-death-obsessed, halfway-to-crazy side of Jesus and Mary Chain's persona no doubt plays a major role in Psychocandy's status as the Jesus and Mary Chain album. Even though this persona lasts through most of their career, this album's noise level serves as an easy representation of it. The album is feedback-soaked to the extreme, and their public image at the time was one of distance and diffidence: playing brief, loud shows with their backs to the audience, giving snotty interviews. Everyone loves a rebel, and Psychocandy was when the Jesus and the Mary Chain were most obviously rebels. It's not even that Psychocandy's songs themselves are the most aggressive in the band's career. There's a dreamy, romantic swoon to "Just Like Honey", "The Hardest Walk", and others. Strip "Never Understand" of its layers of feedback and you have a sing-song melody that could support "Surf City"-type lyrics, or be turned into a Ramones song. It's more like the brazenness of the feedback, combined with the lyrics and the public image, that made Psychocandy into the band's emblem. Rebellion's easier to spot when your eardrums are on fire.
Each of these other albums traffics in the same sort of material, musically and lyrically, yet comes at it from a slightly different angle. The feedback-free Darklands is the calm after the storm, stylistically, though it's no less dark a vision. Again it's poetry of emptiness and recklessness and death -- lyrics like "I'm sitting here warming / to the coldness of things" -- set against pure pop melodies. The relative lack of noise may make the tunes seem more pleasant to the ear, but the attitude the songs share can't be defined as complacency. There's just as much desire and destruction here, but it's been placed in a more gentile setting, one more easily mistaken for settling.
With turned-up guitars, drum machines, and a generally glitzier style, Automatic and Honey's Dead may be easily marked as products of their time: the early '90s, when "alternative" was the rage, the Stone Roses and Nirvana were on the scene, and the Jesus and Mary Chain were getting more used to performing and publicizing. But each offers its own frame to forcefully reign in their personality, give it drive. The sleek Automatic often feels like the girls-and-cars album that its title may imply, though here the cars will lead to death, girls may get there faster, and chemicals are always on-hand to bring you closer to the edge. The songs reference each other in the lyrics, forming a puzzle built out of desires: for sex, for money, for consumer goods, for death. The album's robotic groove combines with its fatalism and -- of course -- sunshine melodies to call to mind a fiery crash, even as the feedback blaze of Psychocandy is nowhere to be found.
The Jesus and Mary Chain - Just Like Honey
Honey's Dead may be the closest they came to arena-friendly, larger-than-life pop-rock, with propulsive drums and attention-getting hooks, especially on singles like "Reverence", "Far Gone and Out" and the glowing ballad "Almost Gold". There's a psychedelic side to the trippiness of "Teenage Lust" and "Catchfire", but most of the time the melodies are light and pointed in an upward, pop direction, even with the album's dense, heady, guitar-heavy sound. This is music that expands towards the sun, not the dark, though the lyrics are still driven by fury.
Honey's Dead songs like "Almost Gold" and "Sundown" could be described as gentle, peaceful even, pointing the way to the graceful, more "mature" pop of Stoned & Dethroned. In some ways Stoned & Dethroned seems like the group's most focused album, one where the songs together explicate one mood in sharp detail: a meditative mood, a coming to terms with life. The outlook is still that of outsiders, obsessed with death, but there's an extra level of awareness to the lyrics, from opener "Dirty Water" poking fun at macho attitudes ("fuck with me / and I'll fuck with you / isn't that what we're supposed to do") to closer "Feeling Lucky" and its unashamed embrace of love. And the music reflects that level of growth as well; it's slower, and more acoustic. Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star and Shane Macgowan add to the brightness of the album with their guest vocals. Stoned & Dethroned is an album summed up by the lyric "don't wanna live in the same old place / got new ideas and I got new taste."
This five-album stretch of the Jesus and Mary Chain's career resembles a constant push towards new ideas, even while they're all variations on one central idea. Within that context it's Stoned & Dethroned that feels most like an essential change in direction, a pushing forward. Even in the music videos for the album the Reid brothers look more comfortable with their role. Every other video collected here follows the same pattern: group fake-sings and fake-plays in an overtly uncomfortable manner. The videos for Stoned & Dethroned's "Sometimes Always" and "Come On" have premises, sets, and lips that move in time with the words. Perhaps that level of professional comfort somehow hastened the demise of a band founded on an image of recklessness, who knows, but it's true that Stoned & Dethroned has a grace to it unique in the band's career. It might forever be an afterthought in the band's history, an epilogue, yet it still sounds fantastic: less raging than their other albums, but not more flawed, and definitely no less driven by the brothers' distinct view of the world.
It's interesting that, in a strange way, Stoned & Dethroned is also the Jesus and Mary Chain album that most resembles the Velvet Underground -- often sounding like an extended riff on "Sunday Morning" -- even though the feedback of Psychocandy has forever associated that album with the Velvets in critic's minds. But sometimes it's hard to listen past the squeal of a guitar, easy to get so wrapped up in the excitement of noise that you confuse it for perfection (or at least, "importance") and consider it the end-all, be-all. Psychocandy offers a blazing light, but the other four albums shine as brightly, each in its own way.
The Jesus and Mary Chain Featuring Hope Sandoval - Sometimes Always