AS FOUNDER and sole permanent member of The The, Matt Johnson wields one of the most incisive, razor-sharp wits in all of rock, and chances are it's duped you. "This is the day, your life will surely change," you've probably found yourself singing, triumphantly nodding in time with the band's 1983 electro-pop hit, "This Is the Day." Admit it.
Showbox, Friday, May 12
Too bad the chorus is a sarcastic jab at self-delusion, and the song is really about deep-rooted depression, the unforgiving march of time, painful nostalgia, and insomnia-induced self-loathing. Ouch.
Here's another truth you should know: Although it is perhaps The The's best-known song, "This Is the Day" is but a mere hint of the awe-inspiring work Johnson has produced over two decades and nine full-length albums, including his most recent offering, NakedSelf, released in February on Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor's Nothing imprint.
"Monday morning, I look the mirror in the eyes/I think I'd kill myself if I ever went blind."—"Another Boy Drowning," from Burning Blue Soul
Burning Blue Soul. Released in 1981 on the burgeoning 4AD label under Johnson's own name, this album offered the first glimpse of the singer's unique talent for melding musical hooks with nasty thoughts. A harrowing ride through the bleak landscape of both Thatcher's England and Johnson's own mind, Burning is a narcotic collection of tape loops, delayed guitars, and primitive sampling, all topped with Johnson's reedy ruminations on both personal and national health (or lack thereof). The album is noteworthy for introducing several themes that would come to dominate nearly all of Johnson's subsequent works: a fascination with the soul; Britain's unfulfilled promise and capitulation to US interests; and the devastation brought on by failed love, nostalgia, and a seemingly relentless fatalism.
"I'm just a symptom of the moral decay that's gnawing at the heart of the country."—"The Sinking Feeling," from Soul Mining
Soul Mining. Johnson's first release for Epic Records, this album replaced Burning Blue Soul's churning rhythms and scary samples with programmed drums, pleasant acoustic strumming, and a generally sunnier sound. But riding on the seemingly happy melodies are some of the most brutally confessional lyrics ever laid to tape. On "The Twilight Hour," Johnson turns the beginning of a new relationship into a horrific journey. "You were emotionally independent, but starved of affection/Now you've been trapped by tenderness and been beaten into submission." Elsewhere, as on the polyrhythmic, African chant-infused "Giant," Johnson proves why he's the godfather of modern angst-rock: "I'm scared of God and scared of hell/I'm caving in upon myself/How can anyone know me when I don't even know myself."
"The stains on the heartland can never be removed from this country that's sick, sad, and confused."—"Heartland," from Infected
Infected. This remains Johnson's masterpiece: a brutal, piercing indictment of England's wholesale acceptance of American military and financial intrusions. Released in 1986 when Johnson was just 24, it paints a picture of Britain as a Reagan-governed, first-world has-been and "51st state." "Come down, the Devil's in town," goes "Angels of Deception." "He's stuck his missiles in your garden and his theories down your throat/and God knows what you're gonna do with him 'cause I certainly don't." "Sweet Bird of Truth," sung from the viewpoint of an apologetic American fighter pilot bombing a Middle Eastern country, was released just days after the US attack on Libya. The song got Johnson banned in the UK, as did Infected's title track, a club-ready nod to the rising AIDS epidemic that killed Johnson's younger brother Andy. Musically, Infected is a buoyant mixture of brass, electro-pop beats, synth washes, and soulful back-up singers (featuring a then-unknown Neneh Cherry). The album has sold nearly 1,000,000 copies worldwide.
"As long as Jesus gives us everything we want, we'll love him."—"The Violence of Truth," from Mind Bomb
Mind Bomb. For this 1989 album Johnson turned his turrets on organized religion. "Good Morning, Beautiful," "Armageddon Days Are Here Again," and "The Violence of Truth" all attack humankind's propensity for killing in the name of one god or another. Musically, the album is a departure for Johnson. Gone are the programmed beats and reliance on keyboard-driven melodies. Instead, an organic, band-generated sound includes David Palmer's phenomenal drumming and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Other highlights are "Kingdom of Rain," Johnson's heartbreaking duet with Sinead O'Connor, and "The Beaten Generation," an ode to survivors of '80s Britain.
Johnson spent most of the '90s keeping a low profile. He released the comparatively tame Dusk in 1994 (it debuted at #2 on the British charts and was supported by a world tour). Hanky Panky, his 1996 tribute to a fellow troubled soul, Hank Williams, was remarkably well-received by critics, including Williams' daughter, who reportedly told Johnson, "You did a great job with my daddy's songs."
And finally there is NakedSelf. Recorded throughout 1997 at Johnson's New York City studio, it features a new band, and, like Mind Bomb and Dusk, contains both brilliant and mediocre songs. "ShrunkenMan," "TheWhisperers," and "SoulCatcher" are classic Johnson: tuneful songs full of insightful, haunting lyrics. But "VoidyNumbness" is cloying, and "SaltWater" sounds like punk slumming.
It makes sense that Johnson now resides on Trent Reznor's label, for the Nine Inch Nails frontman clearly owes a massive debt to Johnson. The next time you hear Reznor screaming on The End, understand that his path was paved in great part by a balding Englishman with an unusual knack for articulating our darkest fears.