The The - Mind Bomb
or 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.