One of the most charming quirks of the very early eighties was the unexpected popularity and commercial success of the most enigmatic of pop music. In 1982, impressively-coiffed British quartet Japan were rewarded after years of near-misses when their positively minimalist single ‘Ghosts’ climbed to number five in the UK charts. A year earlier, New York avant-gardist Laurie Anderson performed even better, as her eight-minute mini-suite mixture of pop and spoken word, ‘O Superman’ hit number two. When you think of it, even the likes of Soft Cell or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark seem quite unlikely as stars, with their peculiar dancing, affected vocals and dry, skittish percussion on singles like ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Enola Gay’. But, aside from The Fall and the Associates, few “bands” of the early post-punk years were as popular despite being positively eccentric as Matt Johnson’s The The.
I’ve seen The The described as both synth-pop and post-punk, but neither term really seems to fit. In fact, for their first releases, including this debut album proper, they weren’t even an actual band. Only the enigmatic Matt Johnson features on all seven tracks, often playing multiple instruments in a kind of megalomaniacal desire to keep absolute control over his creation. But, given how long it appears to have taken him to make his mark (a first album, Burning Blue Soul, was released in 1981, but under his own name, and he found getting an actual band up and running more than a little difficult), it’s hard not to find some sympathy with Johnson’s determination. In this context, it’s no wonder that Soul Mining is no joyful debut from a confident young whippersnapper, but rather a claustrophobic and cynical slab of self-loathing and barely-restrained fury.
Much has been made of the current generation of synth-wielding artists who appear to have elevated bedroom-composed music to an art form. Well, Soul Mining may have been recorded in a couple of studios, but it crystallises the inner world of the bedroom-based singer-songwriter to perfection. Its opening salvo, ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ and ‘This Is The Day’ are two sides of the same isolated coin, the former a despondent musing on inertia, the latter a more upbeat look at potential futures. ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ features pounding, almost metallic rhythm stabs, almost of the sort you’d get on a same-period Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept. album, aligned with see-sawing bass lines, snippets of radio static and fuzz-laden guitar. Johnson practically eviscerates himself emotionally in lyrics such as “All my childhood dreams/ Are bursting at the seams/ And dangling around my knees” and, in the chorus, “Another year older and what have I done/ My aspirations have shriveled in the sun”. Anyone who has ever felt that their life failed to live up to expectations will instantly connect to such self-laceration, which reaches fever pitch as he closes on a repeated mantra of “My mind has been polluted/ And my energy diluted”, over and over again. It’s quite ironic that Johnson manages to conjure up such a potent and determined piece of deformed pop whilst simultaneously lamenting his own lack of focus.
The response to this attack of self-doubt comes, after a fashion, on ‘This Is The Day’, although it starts out with a bleary-eyed “day after the night before” vibe. Johnson quickly decides, though, that things can only get better from here, as he loudly proclaims, “This is the day your life will surely change/ This is the day when things fall into place.” Accordion and fiddle lend the track a more pastoral vibe that contrasts nicely with its predecessor’s moody rock sound, whilst its catchy melody was surely deserving of better than its eventual chart position of number 71. These two tracks set out the spirit of Soul Mining, which vacillates between a certain forlorn romanticism (‘Uncertain Smile’) and fierce cynicism (the slow-burning faux-soul of ‘The Sinking Feeling’). At a time when pop was aiming for short, sharp bursts of infectious musicality, Matt Johnson’s melodies must have seemed quite alien, with frequent temporal shifts, such as on the loping, hazy ‘The Twilight Hour’ or the multi-faceted title track. There are hints of progressive rock at some points, whilst elsewhere the album nods towards where Mark Hollis would take Talk Talk later in the decade.
It all culminates fantastically with the unfathomable and unexpected dance epic ‘GIANT’, a track that coalesces Johnson’s pop sensibilities with his innate sense of disillusion into nearly ten minutes of p-funk bliss. In his best mix of croon and snarl, Johnson declares “I am a stranger to myself” before going on to lament his fear of both God and Hell, sounding like a man torn up by his terror. Zeke Manyika provides funky African rhythms whilst synthesizers zip and fly in all directions, guided by supple bass and snaking guitar licks. The percussions builds into a storm of pounding beats (courtesy not just of Manyika but also Foetus’ JG Thirlwell) as Johnson wails out “How could anyone know me/ If I don’t even know myself”, his voice seeming to give out through exhaustion to be repeated by a multi-voiced chant. ‘GIANT’ is a weird closer that really shouldn’t be. It’s fun and irresistibly groovy, but this simple pleasure is subtly tainted by the raw angst of the lyrics, and the increasingly claustrophobic repetition of rhythms and voices. It’s Soul Mining and The The in one track: catchy, musical, but also strangely obtuse and unfathomable.
After Soul Mining, The The would grow in strength as Matt Johnson brought an overt political angle to his lyrics, heightening the universality of albums like Infected and Mind Bomb by turning ever-so-slightly away from his debut’s moody introspection. He even allowed The The to become a proper band after 1986 or so, and forged a singular career, often at the same skewed angle away, but never disconnected, from pop music that he started with in 1983. Soul Mining is in every way a perfect starting point, and one of the best albums of the eighties to boot.