Every few years I immerse myself in Soul Mining, the debut album by The The. It’s been with me in various forms over the years – taped from the record borrowed from Irvine library, bought on cassette (since lost) for £1.25 from the back of Boots in Irvine Mall, upgraded to CD in the early ’90s and, more recently on vinyl, dug out from between the Kenneth McKellar and Marty Robbins albums in a Kilmarnock charity shop for a couple of pounds, the gold-stamped ‘Property Of CBS. Demonstration Only. Not For Sale.’ message on the back the icing on this particularly jammy cake. Re-sult, as they say.
It’s sobering to think that next year it’ll be 40 years young, its themes of existential crisis, mental state of mind and anti-government stance very much relevant to the times we currently live in. ‘I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country,’ Matt Johnson states on side one’s The Sinking Feeling.
It’s a record that comes wrapped in claustrophobia, paranoia and fear, compounded by relentless, crashing drum machines, snaking, electrified guitars and inventive technology that dates the record, maybe almost as much as the slap/synth bass that thwacks its way in and out of the grooves, but there’s not a band currently working who is as inventive and focused and visionary as Matt Johnson/The The was at this moment in time.
Much like his better-known contemporaries, Matt Johnson is neither as productive as Kate Bush nor as revered perhaps as Mark Hollis, but is every bit as much the auteur, driven by the sonic vision in his busy head. This is a man for whom music is a slow, deliberate process, sculpture rather than slap-dashed expressionism, and we’re all the richer for it.
This Is The Day might have been the obvious first choice of single from the record – gorgeous, lilting French café music with a Biblical metaphor running through it – but Uncertain Smile is the one that I return to time and time again.
The The – Uncertain Smile
It’s a song in two halves. In the first, Johnson delivers a crooned, close-miked vocal, all deep breaths and slightly wobbly intonation. In an era of chart-bound bands fronted by preening and pouting poseurs for whom the actual vocals were secondary to, y’know, what mascara went with the pantaloons or whatever, Johnson’s approach can be seen as both unique and brave.
Undeniably keeping a keen ear on proceedings was a pre-debut album Lloyd Cole, who would adopt the same approach when he came to record his vocals on Rattlesnakes. It’s not even up for debate. Contrast and compare Lloyd’s grinning, gulping vocal on his album’s title track with Johnson’s delivery on Uncertain Smile and see/hear for yourself.
But enough of the finger-pointing.
Uncertain Smile is a beauty. An ear-friendly acoustic guitar strums a chord pattern, swells of synth colour the melody and Johnson plunders the Big Book of Existential Angst to deliver a well-considered lyric.
And then it all takes off. A moonlighting Jools Holland, turning up at the studio on his motorbike and still in his leathers, hears the demo once, jumps on the studio piano and lays down a masterful solo.
Holland (unjustly if y’ask me) gets lots of flack for his supposed adding of The Boogie Woogie to everything he touches, but on Uncertain Smile he freeforms over the top of it like Mike Garson riffing on Aladdin Sane; jarring notes that veer on the edge of Les Dawson but pull back just in time, clanging chords that rattle the bones, trilling high notes that cascade down to bluesy bass notes and then back again, dextrous and masterful, Holland’s knowledge of jazz being put to good use. His playing transforms the track from an interesting slice of angst to a proper work of art that’s Bowie-level great.
Holland was surprised to find his contribution used as the big statement in the outro. He’d assumed that Johnson would drop his part into the middle of the track to create a piano interlude. Instead, Holland’s playing stretches the track all the way to the end of a breath-taking side one. Sometimes I never make it to side two, preferring instead to drop the needle on Uncertain Smile for just one more time…
Here‘s the near 10 minute New York Extended Mix. Jools-free and pitched percussion crazy.