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jueves, 26 de noviembre de 2015

The The - Mind Bomb (1989)

Yo sé que me estoy saliendo de la línea progre, que es el espíritu cabezón por excelencia, pero después de Morphine, no me aguanto las ganas de compartir la música del genial Matt Johnson, cabeza de The The, una banda esencial en la escena post punk / new wave inglesa de los 80 y 90.

Artista: The The
Álbum: Mind Bomb
Año: 1989
Género: New Wave / Post Punk / Fusión
Duración: 46:07
Nacionalidad: Inglaterra


Lista de Temas:
1. Good Morning Beautiful
2. Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)

3. The Violence of Truth
4. Kingdom of Rain
5. The Beat(en) Generation
6. August & September
7. Gravitate to Me
8. Beyond Love

Alineación:
- Matt Johnson / Voz, piano, cintas, guitarras eléctricas y acústicas, teclados, melódica
- Johnny Marr / Guitarras eléctricas, armónica

- James Eller / Bajos eléctrico y acústico
- David Palmer / Batería

Y además:
Sinead O'Connor / Voz (4)
Esme Livesey / Rezos infantiles (1)
Mark Feltham / Armónica eléctrica (1, 3, 5)
Warne Livesey / Teclados (1, 4), banjo (2), guitarra acústica (4, 5)
Pandit Dinesh / Percusiones (1)
Chris White / Sax tenor (1)
Phil Todd / Sax tenor (1)
Gavin Wright / Violín árabe (2)
Wix / Órgano Hammond (4, 8), piano (5, 6, 8), acordeón (5)
Danny Cummings / Congas (4), percusión (6, 7, 8)
Pedro Haldemann / Bongós (4), percusiones de agua (7)
Geoff Foster / Coros (5)
Danny Thompson / Contrabajo (6)
Sarah Homer / Clarinete (6)
Dai Pritchard / Clarinete bajo (6)
Hilary Storter / Oboe (6)
Ashley Slater / Trombón (7)
John Eacott / Fliscornos (8)


Matt Johnson comenzó a producir música a fines de los 70, en pleno momento de auge del post punk. Sus primeros trabajos con The Gadgets y como solista/multinstrumentista buscaban acercarse al sonido experimental, sintético e industrial de bandas como Throbling Gristle, o The Residents, pero pronto encontró un sonido más personal enfatizando la ejecución en vivo y reduciendo la tecnología tipo synth y dance pop. La rítmica funk, la sonoridad blues y la claridad poética y política crearon pronto un monstruo que retó desde fuera del establishment musical a las tendencias del día, que de por sí eran bastante independientes. El resultado fue una música independiente incluso de la propia música independiente: un rock cercano al new wave pero diferente en espíritu porque lo que lo animaba era una forma de expresión totalmente progresista (y por ello pariente de lo progresivo). Una especie de anarquista musical con una propuesta brillantemente oscura de observación de la realidad política, de la religión, de la vida cotidiana y la tortuosa condición humana.



Burning Blue Soul fue una de las primeras producciones que salieron bajo el nombre extraño, lleno de significado y a la vez vacío que es "The The". Sin embargo este álbum era un trabajo solista; fue reeditado después con el logo de The The, pero es un disco anterior y no se suele contar en su discografía. Es el siguiente, de 1983, Soul Mining, el que inicia propiamente la discografía de The The. Para 1989, Johnson ha reclutado al ex guitarra y armónica del mítico The Smiths, Johnny Marr y a un baterista extraordinario que había iniciado su andar con otra banda new wave: ABC. El estilo cercano al dance pop de los dos primeros discos se transforma en una estrategia con base en las estructuras fijas del new wave pero redecorado y retroalimentado con sonoridad de blues, jazz y un funk suave, discreto. Frecuentemente tenemos una estructura rítmica sobre un riff de bajo estático, y un cambiante edificio de armonías, voces e instrumentos que se construye sobre ese cimiento.

Mind Bomb, tercer disco de estudio de The The (sin contar Burning Blue Soul) es el producto de esta reunión de talentos bajo la dirección bien establecida y bastante exigente de Matt Johnson. Es un disco versátil, diverso, con instrumentaciones complejas, ritmos cambiantes y poderosa poesía. Cuenta en su lista de genios a la gran Sinead O'Connor, que canta a dúo con Johnson una balada extraordinaria: "Kingdom of Rain".

Como sucede con todos los buenos discos, Mind Bomb no tiene desperdicio. Sus puntos más altos están en "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)", "The Violence of Truth", "Kingdom of Rain", "The Beat(en) Generation" y "August & September", aunque la primera ("Good Morning Beatiful") y las dos últimas rolas ("Gravitate to Me" y "Beyond Love") no se quedan atrás. Johnson es dueño de una voz tan versátil como su trabajo, que puede viajar desde la dulzura y la suavidad hasta el desgarrador aullido de dolor, el grito de denuncia y el rugido de rabia.

Entre las características que separan a The The de las tendencias de su tiempo están la duración de las canciones, que en Mind Bomb pueden llegar hasta los 8 minutos, y el uso de sonidos sin electrónica o con pocas muestras synth, además de los ritmos diversos que presenta cada tema.

La guerra fría que se encuentra en sus últimos momentos se puede sentir en "Good Morning Beautiful": "¿Quién es, quien puede hacer que los pequeños ejércitos de la izquierda y los pequeños ejércitos de la derecha enciendan los cielos esta noche? Pero hay más ahí, pues la pregunta se refiere a las cosas en las que la gente cree, sus dioses y religiones: "El único camino hacia el cielo / ¡pasa por el infierno!" La inclusión de grabaciones de voces árabes al inicio, sin embargo, prefigura los conflictos que sustituirán a la guerra fría después de la caída del "socialismo real", la oposición Occidente/Medio Oriente, la milenaria lucha entre el Islam (cierto Islam) y la vieja Europa (cierta vieja y thatcheriana Europa). Después de una interesante introducción ambient, el ritmo entra con un bajo sincopado que da lugar a la voz, metálica y en son de lamento, y luego la entrada de la batería de Palmer, sólida y brillante.

Estos temas de crítica y denuncia de lo político reaparecen en "Armageddon Days..." Johnson cuenta que el disco salió justo después de la publicación de Los versos satánicos de Rushdie y de su condena por los líderes del mundo islámico, por lo que la coyuntura le dio mucho aire radial al tema, hasta que "alguien de arriba" vetó la canción. Y es que el coro es directo (y si ponemos la mirada en nuestra realidad hoy, es premonitorio): "El Islam se está levantando / Los cristianos se movilizan / el mundo está sobre sus codos y rodillas / se ha olvidado el mensaje / y se adoran los credos, / Esto es guerra, gritó, GUERRA!" Todo cantado sobre un ritmo rápido, casi como una polka, que le da un toque hasta humorístico a esta caricatura musical sobre la geopolítica en el amanecer de los 90, que sigue siendo la misma hoy. La canción se convierte en un duro cuestionamiento al uso político de la religión, y así denuncia: "Dios no se construyó a sí mismo ese trono / Dios no vive en Israel ni en Roma / Dios no pertenece al dólar yanqui / Dios no planta las bombas para Hezbollah / ¡Dios ni siquiera va a la iglesia!"

Con truenos de tempestad aparece "The Violence of Truth", que arranca con un estupendo Hammond funky adornado por la lastimera armónica de Feltham. "Qué es la maldad / qué es el bien / qué es esa fuerza que te posee? ... Esas son las reglas de la religión, las reglas de la tierra / así es como las fuerzas de la oscuridad han suprimido el espíritu del hombre".

"Kingdom of Rain", la balada en que hacen dúo Johnson y Sinead O'Connor (una artista admirable y completa que está entonces en su mejor momento), pone la mirada en las relaciones amorosas, una canción bellísima sobre el desengaño amoroso, que tendrá una especie de eco después en "August & September", en la que el hombre, ya solo, se lamenta por el amor perdido o abandonado, haciéndo una autocrítica que pocas personas son capaces de hacer: "¿Qué clase de hombre fui / que pude sacrificar tu felicidad para satisfacer mi orgullo?"; otra balada (anti)romántica tremenda.

Pero entre esas dos baladas hay otra canción en plan caricatura, con ritmo similar al de "Armageddon Days..." pero en tonos mayores. Lo que hace Johnson ahí es describir burlona, irónicamente, a su generación. Haciendo un juego de palabras con la mítica generación beat (generación golpe), habla de la propia como la generación beat(en) (generación madreada). "The Beat(en) Generation" es una maravilla de mirada crítica sobre la Inglaterra de Thatcher, que aún es la primera ministra del decadente imperio. "Y nuestra juventud, oh juventud, está siendo seducida / por las avariciosas manos de la política y las medias verdades ... Nos envían a la policía especial / para librarnos de la libertad y evitarnos la paz".

"Gravitate to Me", con un ritmo suave y enérgico a la vez, y la armónica en primer plano, y "Beyond Love", de regreso al sonido lento y dulce de las baladas johnsonianas (con un destacadísimo desempeño en la guitarra a cargo de Marr), cierran el disco reabriendo la esperanza para el corazón lastimado que habían dejado las baladas anteriores.

The The seguiría después con nuevas producciones, con las que alcanzaría el nuevo milenio pero ya no seguiría más allá. Johnson, en cambio, ha optado por la militancia política, manteniendo su presencia independiente a través del cine y el apoyo a otros proyectos: siguiendo ahí para recordarnos de dónde venimos y lo alertas que debemos estar para que no terminen de arrancarnos del mundo al que pertenecemos. Una carrera entera contra la enajenación, desde la independencia total. Vale la pena escucharlo, y si les parece bien a los cabezones, traeremos más discos de The The. Por mi parte, tengo que agradecer públicamente al gran bajista, compositor y productor Demian Cobo, porque fue él quien me puso a The The por primera vez, allá a principios de los 90, y desde entonces me volví un fiel seguidor de Matt Johnson y sus proyectos.


Cesar Pinto en Nada Bueno:

The The regresa con fuerza para el año ’89, con otro mítico album de nombre Mind Bomb, donde literalmente todos los involucrados en él estuvieron al borde de un colapso mental y físico dadas las exigentes demandas que Matt imponía tanto a sí mismo como a los demás… Y es que la realización de un trabajo de tal nivel, no es precisamente un camino de rosas.
Aquí se incluyen canciones de un muy alto nivel crítico y de reflexión que van en un estilo entre rock y dance, como el tema vetado por la iglesia “armageddon days are here (again)“, “gravitate to me“, “the violence of truth” o el “The beat(en) generation“.
Un álbum para no perderse pues también se hacen notar las performances de otros integrantes ‘reclutados‘, como por ejemplo el ex-Smiths Johnny Marr en la guitarra o el ex-ABC Dave Palmer en la batería.
“Mi residual interés en la religión y asuntos espirituales se había vuelto a encender… pasaba demasiado tiempo buscando vehículos para mi inspiración. He hecho algunas cosas que me dejaban ‘quemado’ varias veces, pero era interesante experimentar los estados mentales a que éstas conllevaban. Armageddon Days estaba previsto que fuera la primera canción promocional del álbum, pero una semana antes sucede el escándalo de los versos satánicos de Salman Rushdie… nuestro tema empezó irremediablemente a sonar en las radios y por lo menos una de estas emisoras, recibió una llamada de alguien de arriba que fundamentalmente decía: No pongan esa canción o ya verán“, Matt Johnson.

En Wikipedia:

Mind Bomb is the third studio album by The The, released by Some Bizzare/Epic on July 11, 1989 and recorded between October 1988 and May 1989.
For this album, instead of recording with numerous session musicians as he did previously, Matt Johnson assembled a genuine band behind him to play the bulk of the instrumentation (additional flourishes were nevertheless provided by sessioneers, most notably keyboard player Wix). Instead of the darkly polished dance-pop styling of earlier albums Soul Mining and Infected, Mind Bomb opens up the music to reveal a slow, winding textured world of sound, thanks in no small means to ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Lyrical subjects include politics, religion, and romance. The band would also play a world tour and record a follow-up, Dusk. After that, Johnson dissolved it and went about his business alone again. A remastered version of the album was released in 2002.

En el sitio oficial de The The:

No phase of THE THEʼs progress has been without drama to match the intensity on record. By the time of the globally railing “Mind Bomb” album of 1989, and itʼs banned single about the impending clash between Islam and Christianity “Armageddon Days (are here again)” – Johnson was pushing engineers and producers towards nervous breakdowns whilst mind-surfing on meditation, grape diets and magic mushroom tea. He recruited his old friend, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, to join the band and toured the world, culminating in three sold out nights at Londonʼs Royal Albert Hall.

Larga reseña de David Bennun en The Quietus:

Unless you count Burning Blue Soul, originally released under Johnson's own name, Mind Bomb was only the third album credited to The The, and it had the small problem of following a masterpiece.
If you want to know what Britain looked and smelled and felt like in 1986, you can do either one of two things. You can look at Britain as it is now, and imagine it as not quite so fraudulently glossy on the surface, not quite so ugly just beneath it, not quite so bitterly and impassably cracked along every faultline it possesses - although, at the time, it was hard to conceive it might become more so. Or you can listen to The The's album Infected. Of its key song, 'Heartland', Johnson said on its release this was his intention: future listeners should be able to play it and be transported to where and when it came from. It worked.
Few artworks of any type will ever capture a time and place with the definitive gaze Johnson applied to mid-Eighties Britain on Infected. I borrow a phrase there from one of the likewise rare spirits who might be described as even remotely kindred to him. Where Howard Devoto sang in riddles, parables and allusive nightmare images, Johnson was blunt as a hammer, piercing as nails. You knew precisely what he was getting at, and you knew precisely where he was getting at it: you felt it pounded in though skin and tendons. A crucifixion of a kind. Think I'm exaggerating? Listen to Infected again and see if he isn't nailing himself to a figurative cross alongside this island Golgotha's irredeemable brigands.
But that was the album before. He'd done his own country and his own era. What to do next without repeating himself? He fixed upon the world, its geopolitical future, and the fate of humanity as a whole. Whatever criticisms might be levelled at Matt Johnson over the years, thinking small would not be one of them.
There was a presentiment of Mind Bomb on Infected, with the opening track on side 2, 'Sweet Bird Of Truth'. "Arabia... Arabia... Arabia," chants a metronomic crackling voice as if heard over a pilot's radio set. A USAF plane is descending unstoppably into the Gulf Of Arabia as its sole conscious airman grapples with both existential terror and his conscience: "I can almost smell the blood washing against the shores ... Time was when I seemed to know/Just like any other G.I. Joe/Should I cry like a baby, die like a man/While all the planets go to war, start joining hands?"
(Psst - you know what, readers? I think he may have intended that whole sinking American military aircraft thing as a metaphor.)
This, bear in mind, was four years before Operation Desert Shield, and already Johnson saw the American century, America's global power and America's global ambitions, failing and falling in a Middle Eastern graveyard. Mind Bomb, which spread itself, lava-like, into a burning lake of foreboding about the West and Middle East, was released a year before the invasion of Kuwait. The second Gulf War, the Iraq War, was still fourteen years away. Matt Johnson was right. He saw it coming. And we laughed at him, the way one does at prophets. Because he'd really overdone the fire and brimstone this time.
We, or at least I, loved the way he'd overdone it, mind. There he was, a lifesize head glowering off the textured white LP cover above bloody title letters - an Old Testament glower which, if it concealed the hint of a smile, surely did so only to indicate that this crop-headed young Isaiah knew just what dregs stir at the bottom of your filthy soul. Turn it over and there's a white dove impaled on a bayonet. An actual honest-to-God white dove, for Heaven's sake. Did I mention the part about being blunt, and piercing? The thing about metaphors is that they aren't literal, but Johnson had a damned good crack at making them seem that way. I'll level with you. Even today, that back cover makes me chuckle. As for the rest of it: I'm not laughing now.
If Infected seethed and rattled with claustrophobic urgency and loathing, and it did, then Mind Bomb was slow, expansive, looming into inexorable life with a rage that smouldered rather than flamed. It creeps up on you, on 'Good Morning Beautiful', with what sounds like a muezzin's call, which for one reason and another it's likely no major label act would dare to use today (although it might be a Qawwal; it isn't credited and I haven't the ear to tell.) Next, a blast of sluggish brass over ominous piano chords, and pattering, insinuating percussion. Then Johnson's voice, a tense, febrile tenor, a voice living on its nerves, near breaking point, teetering here and there into an aspirated growl, sizzling when pressed against the side of the pan.
I KNOW!, That GOD lives in everybody's souls.
& the only 'devil' in your world.
Lives in the human ... heart!
That, by the way, is not my interpretation of his phrasing. It's a transcript of the album's lyric sheet:
So now ask yourself.
What is human? & what is Truth?
Be fair. You can see why we laughed.
WHO IS IT?
We (friends and I) used to do this bit for a gag, hands cupped over mouth to simulate its Darth Vader rumble. "WHO IS IT, LUKE?"
But the reason it stuck with us in the first place, the reason we did this bit over and over, was because we were listening to it over and over. Because we were transfixed by it. Because it was so powerful. Because it was a great record, created by a remarkable band.
There's the other thing: the band. Something The The had never been before, on a regular basis. They too glowered monochromatically, from the inner sleeve, although the then elfin Johnny Marr, two years out of The Smiths, looked a touch alarmed the camera might be about to glower back. The line-up - two main men plus a rhythm section to make up a quartet - inevitably recalled that of Marr's old band, but its Other Two were musicians of notable range, and needed to be.
Bassist James Eller and drummer David Palmer weren't famous, particularly (the former had played for Clive Langer and Julian Cope, the latter was a member of ABC's classic line-up), but they were just the men for job, as Marr would have been regardless of his fame. If there's anything in Marr's post-Smiths career as good as this, and if his own work on anything since has been as good as it is on this, I've missed it. It's not simply a matter of how different Mind Bomb would be if you took his - by turns - stretched, coiled, wailing, glowing guitar off it; it's that you can't imagine anything akin to the same album might have come about without it in the first place.
'Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)', a scathing cross between a rockabilly tune and 'The Song Of The Volga Boatmen', has the plague-on-all-your-houses quality that marks out Curtis Mayfield's '(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Going To Go':
ISLAM is rising.
The Christians mobilising.
The world is on its elbows & knees.
It's forgotten the message and worships the creeds.
That's the chorus, performed in the manner of the Red Army Choir. And just in case the point is insufficiently hammered home, 'The Violence Of Truth' - dense, scrabbled blues-rock whirling around an organ riff and daubed with mean harmonica - surges in to jab a finger at you and demand:
Why is it that everything in this world we do not understand,
We are pushed onto our knees to worship or to damn?
THOSE ARE THE RULES OF RELIGION
THOSE ARE THE LAWS OF THE LAND
That's how the forces of darkness have suppressed the spirit of man.
This was fierce, stirring music, and lyrics are written to be heard, not read; but at the time it was easy to think Johnson was being reductive. Yeah, religious fundamentalism is bad. What else is new? A quarter-century on, with Islamists murdering thousands every month, with reactionary fanatics plummeting the Middle East into its own Dark Ages, with an American Right that would like to establish a theocracy of its own in the USA, with even secular liberal democracies abjecting themselves before the idea of faith as something with rights of its own, Johnson's words don't seem quite so trite. This isn't just remarkable music. These are songs which saw coming what complacent progressives assumed was on the way out. That ebbing tide was just the water drawing back before the great wave thundered in. And crazy Matt Johnson, the seer on the hill, knew it all along.
Then, that's it. You think of Mind Bomb as a political album, or at least, I do. A vision of the coming zealot apocalypse both turning in upon and spreading out from the Middle East, centuries of violence and grievances stirred up through cynicism, dogma, greed and malevolence, then flying out to plague interlopers and denizens alike. But three tracks in and that's all over. The only overt political comment yet to come is 'The Beat(en) Generation', a clodhopping pun, a mild, toe-tapping tune and a caustic lyric, which might have fitted better on Infected (just as 'Sweet Bird Of Truth' prefigures Mind Bomb), so much does it feel like a sequel to 'Heartland'.
The other four tracks look inward - as, indeed, did half of Infected - and with no kinder an eye. Johnson reminds me of the Weimar Republic's expressionists: George Grosz, Otto Dix, Hannah Hoch. He shares their simultaneous fascination and repulsion with the horrors of a diseased age, and finds no reason to place himself above any of it. On the contrary, his introspection is every bit as savage, merciless and dramatic as his excoriations of the world around him. The two things are of a piece. He, or his protagonist, as a man of his time, is a symptom of that time, to be regarded with no greater sympathy than its other abominations.
The exception comes with 'Kingdom Of Rain', a tribute of remarkable sensitivity to a dying love. Again, it feels like a sequel, this time to Infected's torturous 'Slow Train To Dawn', where by now the passion and the anguish have all spurted out.
(I said remarkable sensitivity, not remarkable delicacy.)
It features one of Sinead O'Connor's finest performances. It's a heartbreaker. The knowledge and sad acceptance by the one of the other's distance, the other of the one's infidelity.
I just wanted somebody to caress, this damsel in distress.
A companion piece of sorts, 'August & September' has something of the chanson about it, and engages in terrible self-laceration. The protagonist is spurned, is devastated, yet still he blames himself for the appalling, selfish crime of wanting his lover back:
I started writing you the letter.
Which turned into the book.
I was going to reach across the ocean.
& force you to look.
But what kind of man was I?
Who would sacrifice your happiness, to satisfy his pride
What kind of man was I?
Who would delay your destiny, to appease his tiny mind.
At which point, one thinks, c'mon, Matt. Even if you're not entitled to another person, you're entitled to your feelings about them. This is, I suppose, the opposite of solipsism. The inability to see yourself as a valid human being at the moment you most need to. But Johnson isn't in the business of self-help or therapy. He's in the business of spilling blood onto the tracks, and harrowing though it is, it's also recognisable and real. As a rule, Johnson didn't so much write love songs as perform surgeries, unanaesthetised - or autopsies.
Grim as that may sound, the closing pair of tracks, 'Gravitate To Me' and 'Beyond Love', are - at least in spirit - on the upbeat side. The first is eight minutes worth of flinging heavy-duty woo, which a lass might find irresistible not in the way a bouquet of roses is irresistible; rather, in the way a cyclone is irresistible.
...we are kindred spirits, born to become earthly lovers
...
I AM THE LIGHTHOUSE. I AM THE SEA.
I AM YOUR DESTINY. GRAVITATE TO ME,
In case that doesn't clinch it, he winds up repeatedly keening, "I KNOW YOU! from a previous incarnation." By this time, Marr's trademark shuddering guitar has taken to circling the beat with a measured, sharp-edged funk riff and the entire business has gathered a torpid but terrifying momentum that can only end with it, and its protagonist, rolling unstoppably atop its object of desire. It's like being courted by a Panzer division. Come hither, or else.
It is, you may have gathered, a quite extraordinary piece of music.
After which, the closing 'Beyond Love' does what it would not do under any other circumstances. It comes as light relief. Among other things.
Our bodies stand naked as the day they were born,
And tremble like animals before a coming storm.
...
The force of life is rushing through our veins.
In & out like the tide. It comes in waves.
The drops of semen & the clots of blood.
Which may, one day, become like us.
Matt Johnson, silver-tongued devil.
Beyond the grasp of lust.
Beyond the need for trust.
Beyond the gaze of the sick & the lame.
Beyond the stench of human pain.
Has anybody since DH Lawrence invested the sexual act with such portent, such moment? And Lawrence didn't have a band to emphasise the point with a steady, ringing backing track - which, improbably, if you stripped away the histrionic vocals, wouldn't be miles away from what Lloyd Cole's Commotions produced for 'Forest Fire'.
You'd be forgiven for wondering what kind of woman would respond positively to such entreaties. But that would be to miss the point, just as it would be to say that those Expressionist pictures didn't look like actual people or streets or buildings. Naturalism was not Matt Johnson's business. The expression of a burning blue soul was his business. There is no 1980s The The album on which he did not do so magnificently; there is no 1980s The The album on which he did it more intensely, or intently, than Mind Bomb. He set out, explicitly, to blow the listener's mind. Perhaps what he effected was more of a scorched earth campaign. When it's over and you find yourself staring at the smoking rubble, your principal emotions are liable to be shock and awe.
And perhaps, after all, you might afford yourself a laugh. You'd be entitled to.

Nick Southall en Stylus Magazine:

For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Almost twenty years on, Matt Johnson’s aPOPcalypse opus (very sorry for that) rings just as truly, just as relevantly, and just as brilliantly as it did on first release. Don’t believe me? Listen to the lyrics for “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)”—“God doesn’t belong to the Yankee dollar / And God doesn’t plant the bombs for Hezbollah” in one verse, before the chorus chant of “Islam is rising / Christians mobilizing / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds,” the first part of which is an irresistible force/immovable object situ that has been seesawing since Richard The Lionheart went crusading.
This particular song carries its bitter enunciations atop a bedrock of twanging guitars, wailing harmonicas, ominous male choirs, and the jauntiest drumbeat ever. It’s a common trick—hiding the bitter pill in a sweetened coating—but whichever way you look at it, it’s an extreme example. How cheesy is that chorus melody, how dramatic the choir-backed delivery, how sinister the sentiment?
Aesthetically, the collected musical signifiers of gated 80s drums, white funk rhythms, expensive arrangements (orchestra, brass, affected harmonica) and distorted vocals mark out Mind Bomb as yuppie music for materialistic 80s go-getters while Johnson himself rails against the culture that created the yuppie; the frisson of danger, of anti-establishment, bloodied-sword liberalism, and disgust carried by the lyrics and Johnson’s dramatic, mannered delivery adding attraction to business-card-carrying members of Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” society.
Of course Mind Bomb dropped in 1989, two years before the end of Thatcher’s premiership, when the me-me-me Tory era was just beginning to be seen for the distastefully selfish scrap it really was, placing The The at an angled remove to, say, Duran Duran. Whether Johnson understood this dichotomy between lyrical content, musical aesthetic, and probable audience fully at the time is unclear. He’d been working in the music business since his mid-teens, when he got himself a job as a teaboy / tape-op at a recording studio aged 17 simply by dint of writing to a ream of record companies asking them to employ him until one finally relented; thus its more than likely that, by Mind Bomb, Johnson was pretty much detached from real life by his decade spent inside the recording industry.
Interviews with Johnson about the recording of Mind Bomb further the idea that he was dissociated—a diet of hallucinogens both chemical and organic fuelled long, solitary sessions in the studio reading The Qur’an and The Bible. His mental state at the time has been described as “barking mad” by some. The The’s previous two albums, Soul Mining and Infected, had offered little in the way of the overt and potentially irksome political and religious musings that are present on Mind Bomb, and had garnered Johnson a strong fanbase and good reputation. Even so, Mind Bomb saw him pilloried across the shop as people assumed (possibly correctly) that he was an egomaniac who thought he knew the answers to all the world’s problems. The cover artwork, a moody close-up of Johnson’s face, backs up the idea of his self-esteem running amok, and is out of sync with the 50s-comic-book-monster imagery of Infected.
Mind Bomb doesn’t sound like a solo album though, primarily because it isn’t. After nearly ten years of The The being a “studio band” that didn’t play live and was composed of Matt Johnson and anybody else who happened to be around at the time, the auteur decided that for this record he wanted The The to be a proper touring band. Interviewing rather than auditioning musicians, Johnson appointed James Eller on bass and Dave Palmer on drums, but the real genius move was hiring Johnny Marr, two years out of The Smiths and eager to move on musically, to play guitar.
Freed from the shackles of his former band, Marr spreads his playing out to cover an array of textures that go far beyond mere “good guitar playing” in the traditional sense, with atmospheric layers sitting next to euphoric squalls and catchy countryish pickings dependent on the song at hand.
The second half of the album switches, after the deliberately pop-scened “The Beat(en) Generation,” from political apoplexy, cultural comment, and religious indignation to something more personal, more spiritual, as “August & September” mourns a dying relationship before “Beyond Love” pleas for human understanding and sensuality on a microcosmic level. The awesome, sprawling “Gravitate to Me” though, sees Johnson positing himself as some kind of messianic figure (“I am the lighthouse / I am the sea / I am the air that you breathe / Gravitate to me”). Religious intolerance, xenophobia, capitalism, social injustice, regret, messiah complexes, lust—just your average pop lyric content for the mid-to-late 80s; ask Kate Bush or Mark Hollis.
At its worst, Mind Bomb is let down by an overwrought adolescent fury and indignation at the entire world that feels like a spoilt child refusing to look at both sides of the argument he’s choosing to bitch about. The heavy-handed “The Violence of Truth” threatens to cross over the taste barrier before leaping it in one bound with a clumsy, crass, and unnecessary lyric about “The niggers of the world.” It might have been a comment on the impotent rock star patronage of African famine and the various economic and military catastrophes unfurling across that continent at the time (or possibly a Lennon reference, god forbid), but in practice it stands out like a sore thumb amidst the non-more-white-and-affluent feel of the album as a whole. In the Britain of 2006 it feels awkward—seventeen years ago it was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, and the odds are on the latter. Musically though “The Violence of Truth” is exceptional: a heavy groove punctuated by Marr’s extraordinary mechanical wah-wah attack and some frenetic harmonica blowing from Martin Feltham (who played harmonica with Talk Talk amongst others). Shame about the lyrics.
At its best though, the ominous, meandering, and building thrum of “Good Morning, Beautiful,” climaxing with Johnson’s bitter snarl of “You’ve still got a lot to fucking learn,” incites erudite riots of the psyche. “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)” and “The Beat(en) Generation” are sassy, poppy pop music with serious agendas that threaten to ignite dancefloors and protest marches in equal measure, and the grooving “Gravitate to Me” and the rolling “Kingdom of Rain” mix sonic interest with sentiment and tunefulness with a skill that seems all too rare.
No one has made music like this, about these kind of subjects and with this kind of grand musical vision to back them up, since Mind Bomb that I can think of, at least not in the stratosphere of million-selling pop records. Post-9/11 and with the current hostilities involving Israel and Lebanon unfolding, this lack of engagement with current global political and spiritual issues by our pop, rock, and alt. stars (or whatever you want to call them) is indicative of the increasing and distressing solipsism of the world. That said, it’s easy to let the seemingly prescient relevance of the lyrics to Mind Bomb outweigh the actual music, which would be a shame because, with or without those words, it’s still a great record.





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