J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Return Trip: The The - Dusk

The The
(Epic ; 1993)

1993 has been a popular year for my throwback reviews of late and for good reason. It was a tremendous year for indie-rock of all stripes - from below radar (the previously reviewed Frosting on the Beater) to all over the map (Siamese Dream). Even idiosyncratic British bands with names that make them impossible to Google were getting in on the act. The The is the nom de performance of Matt Johnson who has been releasing albums under the The The moniker since the early 80s. Most of his early records, notably Soul Mining, Infected and the landmark Mind Bomb, were driven by a penchant for dance beats. But whether it was a feeling that that creative well for him had been tapped or that the public was demanding something more organic in their dance music, The The's 1993 album Dusk was, while not a complete re-invention of their sound, a decided shift in the focus from beats to guitar.

Enter Johnny Marr. As Modest Mouse will attest, you can do a lot worse than pulling in one of the main architects of the Smiths' legendary sound to gussy up your album and Johnson came to that same conclusion earlier in his career. Dusk wasn't the first The The album that involved Marr, but it was the first decided move towards a sound truly more friendly to Marr's expertise. Marr's work is apparent on most of the tracks, but it wouldn't amount to much without Matt Johnson.

If you've never heard The The, it's Johnson's vocals that take center stage most of the time. His singing style is part overly-dramatic croon and part whispery, reverb-laden narrator. And it works amazingly in each guise. The best example of the two coming together is actually in the album's first track, "True Happiness This Way Lies." Beginning with the static of a vinyl record, Johnson comes in speak-singing (with 'audience' reactions included) about the cyclical nature of desire and its apparent inability to be resolved. What begins as a spoken-word piece eventually develops into a sparse, post-blues. It's a stark and haunting introduction to the album's themes.

It's a track on its own however, as the rest of the album searches through songs that are, lyrically, in turn plaintive ruminations ("Love is Stronger Than Death," "Slow Emotion Replay") and self-analyzing, self-deprecating missives ("Dogs of Lust," "Sodium Light Baby" and "This is the Night," almost unquestionably the mirror reflection of Soul Mining's "This is the Day"). Musically, however, the album is a collection of finely honed pop and vague r&b influenced rock. The most obviously Johnny Marr track on the album is "Slow Emotion Replay," but his guitar is the defining presence of the whole middle half of the album. From the chugging blues of "Dogs of Lust" to the smoky, rhythmic twins of "Helpline Operator" and "Sodium Light Baby," it's obvious that Marr was the perfect foil for Johnson's vision of this version of The The.

Bookending the record are a set of songs that magnify the desperation-through-happiness theme of the album - that happiness and love are not permanent, that disaster waits around the corner. Deep into the record comes a slowly building instrumental, followed by the One From the Heart-esque "Bluer than Midnight" and the closing, almost capitulating "Lonely Planet."

But truly the highlight of the album is the masterful "Love is Stronger Than Death." It's the protagonist of Springsteen's "Atlantic City," after the inevitable downfall of his last gamble and the loss of everything important, keeping true to his creeded hope that things that die will one day return. "Here come the blue skies.. / when the rivers run high / and the tears run dry / when everything that dies / shall rise," sings Johnson. Its placement early in the album serves to eventually undermine its optimism - if it closed the album rather than opening it, it would serve as the positive closing thoughts. As it is, it represents the beginning of the narrator's slow decline into nihilism and belief that the cycle of love is eternally destined for defeat. Album placement is everything and here its placement is brilliant.

Dusk is not the The The album that is most often cited, but it's part of a consistently strong catalogue, a bold and honest shift in style, and a unique vision of music.

Rating: E(xcellent)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

The The - "Love is Stronger Than Death"

The The - "Dogs of Lust"

The The - "Slow Emotion Replay"

Purchase Dusk from Amazon.

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