Graded on a Curve:
The The,
Soul Mining

I’ve been dismissing The The as a stuttering problem for as long as I can remember. When it comes to Matt Johnson’s vanity project I’m with Robert Christgau, who dispensed with Johnson altogether with the words, “The The: Uh Uh.” I have always found listening to The The an underwhelming experience. I can’t even say Matt Johnson’s depressive take on things makes me want to kill myself. It makes me want to half kill myself.

But a funny thing happened to me as I was listening to 1983’s Soul Mining. First little flashes of color started leaping out at me. Jools Holland’s extended turn on the piano on “Uncertain Smile,” for example. And the accordion on “This Is the Day.” Subtle things, shadings of color as it were. And then a few of the songs actually began to stick.

And this is odd, because most of Johnson’s songs simply fail to make an impression. I listen to one, and I’ll be damned if I can remember how it went the moment it’s over. But this time around, at least on Soul Mining’s A side, the songs gradually wore me down. “This Is the Day” just might be the best song Johnson has ever written; the melody is seductive, the chorus rousing, and that accordion gets me every time. “Uncertain Smile,” ditto. It’s synthpop at its best, and Holland’s long piano solo goes a long way towards warming up the chill most synthpop gives me.

The A side’s other tracks are also winners. “The Sinking Feeling” plays against itself; the melody is bouncy, while the lyrics are, well, morose. I have charitably decided that Johnson is being funny when he sings, “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay/That’s gnawing at the heart of the country” and when he describes being “raped by progress.” I would certainly hate to think he’s being serious when he says he’s being raped by progress. It sounds… awful. Meanwhile, “I’ve Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of My Life)” is a rave-up of sorts and features some big drums going boom boom boom. Johnson sounds breathless and appears to be taking himself far too seriously but the song still works on the basis of sheer martial badassdom.

The B side I don’t like so much. “The Twilight Hour” goes nowhere and takes too long to get there. That said, it’s the perfect soundtrack for cleaning one closets. Similarly, the title track is a journey to the center of ennui; when it comes to gloom and doom I’ll stick with Ian Curtis thank you very much. Or Robert Smith. Or just about anyone really. “Giant” lopes along for 9:35 minutes in a perfectly linear fashion; I wait and I wait for the song to go somewhere, or do something, and it finally does. To wit, it breaks down into pure tribal percussion followed by some faux Third World chanting. It’s not bad, but is it worth almost 10 minutes of my time? I’ll probably never listen to it again, and I suppose there’s your answer. Album closer “Perfect” toys around with that classic Suicide sound, tinkers with Latin percussion, and throws a harmonica and trumpet solo in to make the disorientation complete. I rather like it, right down to the little dog barking his head off. In the lyrics, that is. The song itself doesn’t feature a little dog barking his head off. I’d like it more if it did.

Johnson troubles me; he makes an impression by failing to make an impression. His constant refrain is he doesn’t know who he is, and I can’t get a grasp on him either. He sounds lost, and as a lost soul I should be able to relate. But I can’t. Lyrically, he leaves me cold. The words hover like a vague miasma. And I’m not so wild about his music either, although I have a soft spot for the disembodied noise and sound experiments that make up 1981’s Burning Blue Soul (least soulful LP ever!). That said, on Soul Mining we make some kind of connection, and I suppose that will have to be enough. Soul Mining may not cause me to check out the The The’s subsequent LPs, but I would never kick such songs as “This Is the Day” or “Uncertain Smile” out of bed. And that’s the the truth truth.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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