The The, aka Matt Johnson and an always-shifting list of band members, has had quite an interesting musical history. Numerous alleged albums never released or rejected by labels (See Without Being Seen, Spirits, The Pornography of Despair, Gun Sluts, and Karmic Gravity) and extremely hard to find singles are balanced out by six official albums, three soundtracks, and one box set. [I’m yet to order those soundtracks, as they’re import-only.]
Johnson’s writing style is quite different from a lot of post-punk and college rock bands from the same era. His lyrics can be both volatile and tender; he was never afraid to say what was on his mind, whether it was anger or love.
His first album, Buring Blue Soul, was released in 1981 under his own name and features a more angular sound inspired by Wire (BC Gilbert and Graham Lewis worked with him on a few tracks). It’s a bit of a strange album, but it’s worth it just to hear how creative he was at the beginning.
1983’s Soul Mining, however, is considered one of his best albums, featuring a full band sound, excellent production and tight songwriting. Some of his best-known songs are from this LP, including “This Is the Day”, “Perfect” and “Uncertain Smile”. [Check out the phenomenal extended piano solo, played by Squeeze’s Jools Holland, in that last track.]
In 1986 he released an eight-song opus about love, sex, hope and death called Infected, complete with an extended video production featuring visuals of all the tracks, filmed all over the globe. It’s harsh and unrelenting, but it’s an incredible journey from start to finish.
(this one features the vocals of Neneh Cherry, just a few short years before her own breakout)
He followed that up three years later in 1989 with Mind Bomb, featuring a wider world view: war, violence, politics, post-Reagan/Thatcher life, and yes, even love. It also features Johnny Marr, fresh out of the Smiths and the Pretenders, who would stay with him for one more album.
(a breathtaking duet with Sinead O’Connor)
In 1990, he’d sneak out a single that remains one of my favorite The The tracks, “Jealous of Youth”. It would also surface a few years later on the Solitude EP.
In 1993 he returned for another full-band album, Dusk, which fit quite nicely into the sounds of commercial alternative rock, and gave him some serious airplay. That didn’t keep him from releasing his bare emotions, however…
He followed it up two years later with…a Hank Williams cover album? I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorite The The albums as I’m not entirely sure what he was aiming for here, but hey… it’s still pretty good!
He wouldn’t reappear for another five years, with 2000’s Naked Self. It’s a much calmer affair…moodier, but calmer. It’s definitely worth picking up.
…and from there, he vanished from public view, working here and there on scores and soundtracks (Moonbug, Hyena and Tony, all under his The The moniker, plus numerous art films) as well as an occasional shortwave radio show over the years, only resurfacing recently with his Radio Cinéola box set and a documentary called The Inertia Variations. At the moment there’s rumors he’s working on a new album, but time will tell…