Chasing Honey Bees: The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Post-Masterpiece Struggle

The Jesus and Mary Chain

The Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album, Psychocandy, is a classic. Or it will be, depending on how long a record has to exist before it attains “classic” status. There’s little argument about that fact. But to look back on it as the start of the band’s discography makes it an even more interesting album than if it stood alone. And now, with new reissues of the first five Jesus and Mary Chain albums — in affordable, non-DualDisc format — we can revisit the band’s most furtive period and see their strange trajectory.

Perhaps what makes these five albums so interesting when viewed as a progression is that they start with such a brilliant album. Right out of the gates, the Jesus and Mary Chain released their best album, and easily one of the best albums of the ’80s. They made their masterpiece in 1985, which raised the question: What the hell could they do next?

It’s a tough question for any band after releasing their magnum opus, but it seems particularly difficult for a band when the album in question is their first one. And it isn’t like Psychocandy slipped under the radar. It wasn’t one of those albums that got noticed later on and was given its due after the fact. The album’s due came right upon its release. It was universally lauded and, coupled with the band’s stand-offish live shows, made the Reid brothers the mysterious, infamous It-boys of alternative music. Anticipation for a follow up record was high.

So what could they do? Sometimes, artists release their best work and give up. Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, for example, has notoriously fallen out of the spotlight in the ten years since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released. Other artists — Built to Spill comes to mind — see their best work as a stamp of infallibility, and fall into a tailspin of mediocre albums.

The Jesus and Mary Chain fall into neither of those categories. Instead, either because of the success of Psychocandy, or because of their natural inclination towards contrarianism, the band used the success of its first album as a reason to explore on other albums. Rather than constantly re-treading their trademark distortion, the band tried to make each album stand on its own.

But it doesn’t all sound like confident experimentation. Often in their music, the Jesus and Mary Chain sound like a band searching for the next thing. From album to album, they island hop from one sound to another, never staying long enough to quite make it their own. So if in the present the Jesus and Mary Chain are known for their distortion and feedback, if we permanently link them with shoegaze, then we are really missing some big chunks of the band’s story.

Even in Psychocandy the band is constantly battling itself. This is not to say that there is anything accidental or haphazard about the album. It’s incongruities are intentional, and brilliantly executed. But when the album leads off with “Just Like Honey”, there are moments later in the album that sound like they’re trying to play catch-up. Despite its overuse in commercials and Sofia Coppola films, “Just Like Honey” is the band’s most perfect song. Whether or not it is their best is another argument. What it is, though, is the perfect combination of the band’s sound and influences. The Shangri-Las, the Velvet Underground, the band’s giddy love of throbbing guitar notes — it’s all there, each element dosed out in perfect amounts.

And in that perfect song, Jim Reid sings of a girl and her “honey dripping beehive”. He’s found the honey right off the bat on Psychocandy. He’s found what he’s looking for. But, by track five, “Cut Dead”, he doesn’t have the honey anymore. He’s “chasing honey bees”. This rehash, or re-imagining, of the honey image seems like a good metaphor for the band’s trajectory. Having captured lightning in a bottle with “Just Like Honey”, the band spends the rest of the album — and then successive albums — trying to get back to that perfect sound. Where they had the honey initially, by “Cut Dead” they not only don’t have the honey, but they’re chasing bees — makers of honey — trying to find the source again. Which is what makes all the squalls and shrieks of guitar on the album sound all the more frustrated and claustrophobic. And it is also what makes the album’s quieter moments sound tragically reticent. In the end, Psychocandy embraces all these emotions, lets them bounce jaggedly off of each other. And the sounds that all that jagged bouncing makes are just as vital today as they were twenty-three years ago. Which is what makes it a classic.

And while none of the other albums quite measure up, they are still both solid in their own right, and interesting to examine together as the band’s trajectory. Their second album, Darklands, comes closest to matching Psychocandy. It is consistent all the way through, catchy and melodic, and establishes its own sound and mood. Gone, for the most part, is the band’s famous feedback, replaced instead with a cold, pervasive space. The opening title track clocks in at five and a half minutes — miles longer than anything on the first album — and draws you into a new world. Where songs on Psychocandy attack, these songs leech into you. They are no less aggressive, but they are more cunning in the ways they get into your head. “Happy When it Rains” and “April Skies” tilt the band’s sound on its head, using the fuzz sparsely to bolster the melody rather than obscure it. Darklands was a bold move by the band and, as a first step in their search for that next thing, it is a brilliant start.

From there, with Automatic, the band tackles a more direct sound. By 1989, the Jesus and Mary Chain seemed to be moving away from their contrarian, antagonistic ways, and as a result Automatic is the most immediate and inviting of their albums. These songs are stripped down, straight-ahead, and awfully catchy. “Head On” — made famous again a few years after Automatic when the Pixies covered it — is the most well-known song from the record, and is an appropriate example of its sound. The quick hook, the thundering drums, a vibrant snarl that rises in the vocals. And though its hardly a happy affair, Automatic sounds far less brooding than its predecessors. Perhaps this, or its comparative lack of complication, is why opinions on the album have been negative over the years. It is considered the first time they missed the mark. But that seems unfair.

What they certainly didn’t do with Automatic was make another Psychocandy or another Darklands. Their on-going search, the next move in their post-masterpiece career, was to try their hand at something a little clearer. If Psychocandy constricted and amplified their love of feedback, and Darklands spread that love, in thin layers, over a much wider canvas, then Automatic takes the fuzz and cleans it up a little. As the band matured, and became less combative, so then did their distortion. What if, they seemed to be asking, we don’t make the fuzz a wall? What if, instead, we poke holes in the wall and invite the listener in? The results, on Automatic, are much less cryptic than the previous two albums. And while it does fall off at points, it is still another interesting incongruity in the Jesus and Mary Chain canon.

Honey’s Dead, on the other hand, might be where the wheels start to come off. All the searching that has gone on in the first albums, all the freedom you can hear in Darklands and the pure zeal in Automatic, have been leeched out and replaced with a frustrated complacency. The album is not without its highlights — particularly “Reverence” and “Far Out and Gone” — but it is really the first sign of the band seeming unsure of themselves. More than any of their other records, Honey’s Dead sounds like a product of its time. This sort of electro-tinged alternative pop was on its last leg commercially in 1992, as grunge took over, and this album’s sadly appropriate title tells the whole story. There is no exploration on this album, but yet it is inexplicably regarded as a return to form. It is a return to their old sound, in some ways, but hardly a return to form. It’s an album that sounds like the band is walking backwards, staring at Psychocandy, unable to shake it. In 1992, the Jesus and Mary Chain finally sounded mediocre, like they had run out of ideas. The post-masterpiece search, it seemed, had claimed another victim.

Which is what makes the fifth album, Stoned & Dethroned, sound so defensive. Much like late-period Pavement, Stoned & Dethroned sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain making music purely for themselves. They shed all of the feedback and distortion, pick up some acoustic guitars, invite famous friends in to sing, and pack the album with seventeen tracks. It is a very pleasant-sounding album, front to back, and more satisfying than Honey’s Dead, but the listener never feels like they’re part of the experience. Instead, it feels like you’re standing awkwardly in the corner of the studio, listening while the band plays and actively ignores you.

The band went on to make more music after these, of course, and are back together in the present day. But these first five albums tell a story familiar to a lot of bands. Looking back on Psychocandy and the band’s output immediately after, it shows us that an artist’s career is a constant search, and if you find what you’re looking for right out of the gate, you might find yourself scrambling for something else you’d like to find. The Jesus and Mary Chain were not crushed under the weight of Psychocandy‘s brilliance, though later albums may suggest they were ground down by it eventually. Instead, they spent those other albums trying to twist its elements into something new. They may have said all they needed to say with their first album, but where most artists would give up or give in to self-parody, the Jesus and Mary Chain took a much harder road: they went in search of something else to say. The results of that search, sometimes muddled, and not without their missteps, but so often brilliant, are what make them a great band, instead of just a band that made a great record.

There is life after a masterpiece.

RATING 10 / 10