Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 27 /
Mary O'Meara in 'Ten Songs That Made Me Love...' writes of some of her favourite songs by post-punk band The The, the project of London-based singer-songwriter and experimental musician Matt Johnson
Some of the songs you love, even though they grab your heart, you have no recollection of where or when you first heard them - those musical introductions can get lost in the mists of time. Yet, some tracks have a kind of initiation quality. They begin a chapter in your most loved songbook with a clear and deep trajectory you can trace from that first audible moment to where you are now.
One such record is 'Uncertain Smile' by The The. I was hypnotized by the rhythm and perfection of it and I had no idea who it was, or even what show it was on but it was Radio One and I think either John Peel or Annie Nightingale. This wasn't in 1982 when 'Uncertain Smile' was originally released - it was around 1990 and, although I'd heard of The The, I'd somehow been shielded from their sound until that point. I listened with my keenest ears for who had made this jaw-dropping record. As the track ended and when I heard who it was I wondered how in the world I'd missed Matt Johnson's already celebrated career to date. Still, better late than never. I bought 'Soul Mining' soon after and all his other albums in quick succession over the next few months. Luckily for me the band were still touring at this point and I saw them a few times before the current (soon to be broken?) hiatus in live performance happened.
I not only fell in love with Matt's music but admired the man tremendously and still do. To try and convey how special the music is to me is a challenge but here goes:
1. 'Uncertain Smile'
The track had existed in embryonic form inside another track called 'Cold Spell Ahead' (a rare recording and a fine record in itself). It was additionally incarnated in another form featuring a saxophone which I've never heard. The track I fell in love with is that more commonly known version featuring the irresistible Jools Holland piano outro.
The notion of an uncertain smile somehow encapsulates the feeling of the song - the tension between a longed for embrace combined with a willingness to let go if it's too intense. "I've got you under my skin/Where the rain can't get in/But if the sweat pours out just shout/I'll try to swim and pull you out." It's such a sensitive and sweet sentiment - noble, almost heroic but there's that uncertainty - I'll try to swim, he isn't sure, yet he'll do the very best he can.
The addictive drum machine situates the song in the early 1980s yet it's not trapped in time, and like most of Johnson's work transcends eras and expectations, tapping into some universal magic that simply makes your soul snuggle closer to the speakers. 'Uncertain Smile' is a masterpiece of melancholic angst, but it's also warm, vibrant and uplifting despite the doubts and despair of which it speaks.
2. 'Good Morning, Beautiful'
The epic opening track of the 'Mind Bomb' album - it's like somehow Matt and band have crammed into seven minutes the history of organized religion and humanity's confusion and distortion of God (or whatever you want to call who/what we commonly call God). The opening "Call for prayer" which always makes me feel like I'm walking down Brick Lane is mingled with a multitude of guitars (yes, Johnny Marr is on board) and a child whispering "Satellite oh, satellite/Who sits upon our skies/How deep do you see/When you spy into our lives?…" The constant repetition of the phrase "Who is it?" alternating with "Ask yourself" precedes a litany of questions, all real questions that can't help but make you think, wonder, ponder, maybe pray "Who is it/Whose words have been twisted/Beyond recognition/In order to build/Your planet Earth's religions?"
I read an illuminating and entertaining account in Johnny Marr's recent biography about this track. Marr describes it as "the story of a satellite addressing our planet and an exposition on humanity's self-destruction. We did it in the middle of the night, having been ingesting psychedelics for several days. When I plugged in my guitar, Matt approached me conspirationally with saucer eyes and said 'Can you make it sound like Jesus meeting the devil?' His request made total sense to me and I summoned up the appropriate response..." I think the band successfully manifested the sound of that encounter, heaven and hell, flesh and spirit into this extraordinary track.
Having spent large chunks of my day waiting in phone queues listening to inept music to speak to various governmental departments today, 'Heartland' feels more relevant than ever. As many people would comment if hearing this for the first time, the track being a sad indictment of the state of the nation thirty years ago, it could have been written yesterday - even though Brexit and Trump were nightmares waiting to happen back in the 1980s. 'Heartland' is about heartlessness, the destructiveness of capitalism, the dominance of the USA, the horror of trying to make a living in a country that's reduced you to a number, a statistic, an inconvenience to the elite. The lyrics are some of Johnson's finest poetry:
"Beneath the old iron bridges, across the Victorian parks/And all the frightened people running home before dark/Past the Saturday morning cinema that lies crumbling to the ground/And the piss stinking shopping centre in the new side of town..."
It's a landscape that's immediately London to me, though it could describe the deterioration of many UK cities. Sadly, this erosion has continued and unless something is done about it we'll all soon be surrounded by nothing but skyscrapers and ugly post-millennial sculptures, communities destroyed, character and cultural heritage bulldozed to oblivion.
Musically the track carries the towering, tottering sounds of New York, the sweeping strokes of the impact of the Dow Jones index on the man or woman on the street. The big sound of the chorus and instrumental breaks allow room for the eerie, scurrying feel of the verses. This all builds tension, uneasiness and for me, at least, a need to fight back before it's too late.
4. 'December Sunlight (Cried Out)'
A breath of fresh air, even though it is a song about pain, though pain that is finally dissolving, evaporating, as the sky clears and the sun falls where it's needed. There's nothing quite like a ray of sunshine soaking into your skin, caressing you, to reignite the feeling of aliveness and even happiness. This song captures that transition from night to day, from intense pain to comfort and resolve to carry on. I love the stripped back spaciousness of this track, the airiness that breezes into each cell, the perfectly timed pauses, the climbing tempo that knows when to come back down, the feeling of balance being restored. It's a beautiful melody - a wonderfully crafted track that I could listen to over and over - and again.
5. 'Love is Stronger than Death'
Most times I've listened to this song I'll find tears welling behind my eyes and sometimes (like today) when I played it they've streamed down my cheeks, yet ultimately I know this to be an uplifting song, a testament to the power of love in the face of death. Death is one of the few, if only certainties we have in life, yet what is death? If a body dies does the soul live on? Still remain, still exist just no longer on the physical plane? Regardless of what you may or may not believe about mortality, love can and does live on, which makes it stronger than death and this precious message is delivered with powerful conviction on this gospel tinted track.
It begins with a lone acoustic guitar strumming gently before mingling with a quivering, yet strangely hopeful harmonica from Johnny Marr building into an open-armed, big, beautiful testament to the endurance of love, and how a seeming ending can be misleading and is actually a new beginning - "Tears may blind the eyes/But the soul is not deceived/In this world even winter/ Ain't what it seems." Nature teaches us that everything is cyclical, circular, rain and shine and we are all part of it. The song was written by Johnson following the death of his brother, Eugene.
6. 'Slow Emotion Replay'
Another astounding track from the 1993 'Dusk' album. Possibly the catchiest, most radio-friendly The The song of all, yet, like many a classic song, it barely scraped its way into the UK top 40. Like several of the other tracks from the album it features a wonderful, jaunty harmonica courtesy of Johnny Marr. Although the lyrics aren't upbeat (nor are they downbeat, as the song situates the singer in an odd type of limbo, devoid of answers, uncertain of previous opinions, yet perhaps finding a kind of liberation in realizing that a state of unknowing is not necessarily a bad place to be) the music IS upbeat, though tinged with that inevitable element of melancholy that's deep inside Johnson's work and also the majority of Marr's.
"The more I see/The less I know/About all the things I thought were wrong or right/And carved in stone/So, don't ask me about war/Religion, or God/Love, Sex, or Death/Because...Everybody knows what's going wrong with the world/But I don't even know what's going on in myself"
Which of us, certainly as we get older, have not found ourselves in this place? There are more questions than definitive answers and seeing things in black and white is rarely realistic. It kind of surprises me that this song doesn't fade, doesn't meander away into uncertainty but ends with a decisive guitar chime and cymbal clash, yet this is the perfect ending for a perfectly crafted song, as though it's following a natural path, working with nature not against, working with instinct not intellectualism.
7. 'Pillar Box Red'
This track appears on The The's single collection '45RPM' though I'm not sure it was ever a single, (just a bonus track), though it does have a poignant promotional video that perfectly captures the sadness of the record. A haunting piano pulls on the heartstrings, activating that peculiar nostalgia so many of us feel for days gone by, childhood, places we used to know and go, even if they weren't always happy times. Johnson seems trapped in a love/hate relationship with the country of his birth, and this song feels specific to London in particular:
"The shallow hugs, the muted rage/The weeping skies, the shadowless days/I love and I hate this place/I ran away but I couldn't escape." The pillar box red flashes we associate with London, red buses, post boxes seem a vain attempt to counteract the greyness of the place, especially in winter. Wearing red lipstick is an attempt to raise some cheer and break the monotony. The lyrics are so evocative - "Roots lie deeper than bones/So back in time I go/Through the saloon bar doors/Onto the chewing gum floors/Where only childhood knows" really conjuring up that heart-breaking feeling of walking through an old haunt and finding the past is no longer present, yet you cannot quite shake the power it has over you or the memories locked deep in your psyche.
8. 'This is the Day'
It's another The The song with a cheerful tune but the subject matter is pensive, sorrowful in places but not without hope - "You pull back the curtains/And the sun burns into your eyes/You watch a plane flying/Across a clear blue sky/This is the day your life will surely change/This is the day where things fall into place" To me, this is about someone hitting rock bottom or enduring some serious emotional pain yet there is a feeling of the only way being up, things HAVE to get better. Yet, there's also the worrying feeling that the person in question expects the change he desires to fall out of the sky, to fall neatly into his lap - which can of course happen, though usually some action is required to escape the kind of rut he seems ensnared in.
It's a single lifted from the deeply introspective 'Soul Mining' album which also carries a track called "I've Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of My Life)." Johnson was barely twenty when he penned these tracks and to me they capture that adolescent feeling of entrapment, of waiting for your life to begin, feeling that nobody understands, that you're capable of great things but stuck in some dead-end town with no means to board that silver plane you're watching thousands of miles above in the blue sky. The song features an unusual accordion piano sound. I am not sure what the instrument is officially called but it's got a bouncy and resilient vibe, the kind of music that actually makes you want to get up and dance which is why ultimately I think this IS a positive record, that there is a way out. The arrival of a new day is a fresh chance and this may just be the day it happens.
9. 'The Whisperers'
Another of the under-rated acoustic tracks from the 'Naked Self' album. I could have chosen 'Soul Catcher' or 'Shrunken Man' (both of which I also love) but in the end settled on this track because of that incredible dream-like chorus where Johnson's voice seems to literally climb into the ether and disperse.
To me, this is a sister record to 'December Sunlight (Cried Out)' once again revolving round the thought patterns of a woman who's been wronged (this time betrayed by friends rather than a lover it seems) but the pain is equally acute. The gentle acoustics capture the fragility of this wounded soul but also lift her to a new place, a place of growth, independence, resilience - "You've got to grow/on your own."
10. 'True Happiness This Way Lies'
The crackling of the needle on the record opens the 'Dusk' album and this track. Immediately that kindles a kind of pre-digital purity, an organic sound. Here Matt Johnson sings the blues every bit as authentically as many of the blues singers of old. Before the song starts he delivers a rant in the style of a kind of evangelical preacher crossed with a stand-up comic/salesman - "Hey Man! I've got what you NEED!" The essence of the speech is that life can be a series of obsessional desires that do not satiate. We get caught in a trap, on an endless loop of desperate wants that even if fulfilled don't fulfil the soul. This is probably the most stripped down, intimate The The track ever made. It is literally the man himself and guitar, and we can hear and feel each chord change, each vibration of his fingers on the fret-board as well as each breath he takes as he sings those blues:
"And someday, someday, someday, you'll come my way/But when you put your arms around me/I'll be looking over your shoulder for something new/'cause I ain't ever found peace upon the breast of a girl/I ain't ever found peace with the religion of the world/I ain't ever found peace at the bottom of a glass." Yet all this searching and yearning does seem to lead him to a final conclusion which is the Buddhist practice of non-attachment to desire, "the only true freedom is the freedom from the heart's desire/And the only true happiness this way lies" and with that sentiment the rest of this incredible album unfolds, exploring some of those obsessions and experiences that have led many to aspire to a zen-like way of life. There is a startling simplicity about this song, a real gem lying under the layer of dust on that vinyl, pierced by the needle.