Dusk, arguably, stands as The The’s last great album. There have been a couple of records since, including the guilty pleasures of the Hank Williams tribute, Hanky Panky, but Dusk stands as an achievement all its own. It ends a great trilogy of records (including 1986’s Infected and 1989’s Mind Bomb) that showed The The mastermind Matt Johnson perfecting his personal musical vision while accumulating the right musicians to pull the whole thing off. Of those three, Infected (like far too many ’80s albums) sounds the most dated. The beat-driven dissonance of Mind Bomb fares better, but for the most part, Dusk sounds like it could have been released today.
That’s not to say it doesn’t show its age in spots — the occasional “antiquated” sound of production trick might rear its head occasionally — but by and large, Dusk is an album that didn’t fall prey to the fads of its time. Offered now in completely remastered form (sans bonus tracks at Johnson’s insistence, although you can kinda get those on 45 RPM: The Singles of The The in the form of remixes), Dusk is surprisingly urgent, even now.
The lion’s share of the credit must obviously go to Johnson, who always sounds like he’s railing against the injustices of the world, but is just as often lamenting his own inadequacies and insecurities. To be sure, Johnson’s portrayal of the world at large is dark, but it’s usually tempered by the microscope he has firmly trained on himself. “Oh, it’s a wicked world / Awaits the ones our young girls bear” he sings on “This is the Night” — right before he adds, “I need someone to hold me / In the fading light of this coming night”. In “Slow Emotion Replay”, he kicks it up a notch by pinning blame on “a deaf, dumb, and blind God who never explains” but then admits “But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself”. Throughout Dusk, Johnson evokes a mindstate where darkness and light are still duking it out, although darkness has the edge. On “Bluer than Midnight”, he intones “Save me” over and over atop gospel piano chords, and by song’s end, there’s no sense of salvation at all. The album-closing “Lonely Planet” tries to leaven the record’s mood (in much the same way that Nick Cave got all spiritual at the end of Murder Ballads, for example), by offering a philosophy that’s best summed up by “if you can’t change the world change yourself . . . the world’s too big and life’s too short / To be alone”.
Helping Johnson convey his message, in addition to his carefully constructed band, is ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. To these ears, Dusk wouldn’t be half the record it is without Marr, and not just for his consistently tasteful guitar melodies. Surprisingly, Marr’s harmonica work contributes just as much to the record’s tone. It drives the disc’s best-known cut, “Dogs of Lust”, and it dominates several other songs, especially “Slow Emotion Replay”. Throughout the rest of the album, highlights are plentiful regardless of their source. “Sodium Light Baby” features funky wah-wah guitar, “Lung Shadows” is an intriguing mix of horns, guitars, and a female phone voice. “True Happiness this Way Lies” rides along a slinky acoustic rhythm. Less “dance”-oriented than Mind Bomb, Dusk is a lean rock album and all the stronger for it.
Matt Johnson is still a vital artist, but Dusk and the albums that preceded it are something special. Dusk captures the sound and feel of slow implosion as well as anything else that’s come out in the last 10 years. These reissues of The The’s albums won’t set the world on fire — there won’t be a stampede of millions to snag them from record store shelves — but they rightfully grab the spotlight for a moment, to illuminate a band that should have been bigger than it was, but which nevertheless attained near perfection anyway.