I love the current trend of record labels re-mixing, re-packaging, and re-releasing my favorite albums from middle and high school in order to win my hard-earned Gen X dollars. The choices are usually based on nostalgia and half the time, when I listen to the album again, I realize that it doesn’t sound nearly as good now as it did when I was an ennui-afflicted 14-year-old. Still, the appeal of “going home again” was strong enough that I became excited upon hearing that Epic’s Legacy imprint was giving the royal treatment to The The’s first four albums for the label — Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989), and Dusk (1993) — since the two middle albums were treasures of my teenage record collection. At the insistence of The The mastermind Matt Johnson, the re-issues contain no bonus tracks because he conceived the original albums as complete works and doesn’t want to alter their focus. That’s fair enough — it’s about time someone realized that bonus tracks aren’t such a bonus when they are of inferior quality and/or interfere with the sonic flow of an album. What the new discs do provide is 24-bit re-mastering courtesy of music biz legend Howie Weinberg, complete lyrics and personnel listings, original cover art, and extra photos.
But what matters most is how the music stands the test of time. Of the two middle albums, Infected fares the worst. Upon its release, NME claimed “Johnson has freeze-framed a whole nation at a moment in time”, and that stands true for better and for worse. Released at the height of Thatcher-era money-grubbing and paranoia, the album is a diatribe against various political and personal injustices. Unfortunately, the album is also “infected” by dreary ’80s dance-pop leanings. The title track comes near being an embarrassment, what with its crazed horns, synth beats, and background wailing by Tessa Niles, who also sang back-up for none other than Duran Duran. While it suffers from similar overproduction, “Out of the Blue (Into the Fire)” is far more successful. Johnson makes the sexual encounter that is the song’s subject both loathsome and sexy, growling lines like “I want a feeling worth paying for” — an apt statement on the effect those Reagan-Thatcher days exerted on our psyches, if ever there was one.
By no means was Johnson’s social commentary unintentional; Infected seethes with lyrical rage, even if the danceable music belies its presence. Sometimes the criticism is broadly political (“Sweet Bird of Truth”), while other times it is personal, as on “Twilight of a Champion” (“A shadow hunting shadows / Of childhood life / It’s all I want and all I miss / But how can I return to a place that don’t exist?”). Even “Slow Train to Dawn”, which is otherwise a dialogue between troubled lovers, contains hints of this larger dissatisfaction with modern life: “I’m just another Western guy / With desires I can’t satisfy”. The track is also notable because it features an appearance by Neneh Cherry, who at that point had honed her skills in the Slits and Rip Rig and Panic, but had not yet wowed the world with “Buffalo Stance”.
Mind Bomb featured another huge talent, but one who had already made his name: Johnny Marr, the influential guitarist and co-songwriter from the Smiths. With the addition of Marr — along with drummer David Palmer (ex-ABC) and bassist James Eller — The The became a functioning group for the first time, and the renewed focus the new musicians bring to the project is staggering. Mind Bomb not only avoids the dated musical gimmicks of its predecessor, but stands as one of the few albums to successfully fuse the sensual and political, pairing deep, sexy grooves with some of Matt Johnson’s strongest lyrics. Like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, Mind Bomb is equally effective as protest or make-out music, and it sounds just as relevant today as it did a decade ago.
Several of the album’s lyrics focus on the dichotomy between religious faith and freedom of choice. There is a God, Johnson seems to be saying, but because He has given us the intellectual freedom to interpret spirituality however we choose, we’ve created religions that are more concerned with exclusion and self-preservation than sympathy and morality. In light of the events of September 11 and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Johnson’s lyrics on “Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)” seem more relevant than ever: “God doesn’t belong to the Yankee dollar / God doesn’t plant the bombs for Hezbollah . . . Islam is rising / The Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds”. On “Good Morning Beautiful” he wonders “Who is it? / Whose words have been twisted / Beyond recognition / In order to build / Your planet Earth’s religions?”, growling the words so they sound as much like a come-on as a philosophical query. On “The Violence of Truth”, the band fuses deep bass riffs and swirling organ with an ugly vision of oppression: “And while the niggers of this world are starving with / Their mouths wide open / What is it that turns the coins we throw at them / Into worthless little tokens?”
Such bilious indictments of Western society are not the only thing the album has to offer. If Johnson seems disgusted by modern politics, he seems equally enchanted by the healing powers of love. “August & September” and the Sinead O’Connor duet “Kingdom of Rain” are cathartic lamentations of dead relationships, but the closing tracks, “Gravitate to Me” and “Beyond Love” are celebrations of love’s comforting pleasures. “You will come to me”, Johnson purrs on “Gravitate to Me”, “To cuddle my flesh / And to quell the torrents / In my subterranean depths”. The religious themes of the previous songs resurface on “Beyond Love”, where spirituality is reconciled with humanity: “So let us take off our crosses / And lay them in a tin / And let our weakness become virtue / Instead of sin”.
While both Infected and Mind Bomb are well worth the grand re-packaging treatment they have been given, the latter stands as the more relevant album. With its focus on songcraft and musicianship, it provides the best showcase for Matt Johnson’s ambitious lyrical vision, one which he continues to pursue.