The The - Burning Blue Soul
If punk was born in the inner cities, post-punk, a clatter of noise in comparison, was the sound of the suburbs. Where punk was the thrilling sound of nightclubs, pubs and rides home on the night bus, post-punk was the silence of cul-de-sacs, deserted railway stations and a bell ringing for last orders at 11pm. Whilst it sounds as though one pales in comparison to the other, post-punk's greatest offering was a sense of longing to be somewhere, anywhere, just so long as it wasn't in suburbia. Most of all, post-punk is the sound of kids gazing out over thousands of orange streetlights to something happening on the horizon.
With a sound that is jittery and nervous, Matt Johnson's debut, credited years later as the first The The album, may, therefore, be the greatest post-punk album available. With each song adding to the tension, as well as the distance, between the suburbs and the inner city, Burning Blue Soul moves from the bleak sound of industrial estates and manufacturing plants to the solitude of days spent walking in parks without ever offering any hope of moving on. As was ever the story, the music only ever offered an outlet for such feelings, never a solution.
The opening track, Red Cinders In The Sand, is a superb example of all that Burning Blue Soul has to offer, as it drifts in to the metallic crash and bang of an industrial plant. Barring a short burst of guitar roughly a minute in, Red Cinders In The Sand rumbles through what must be familiar to anyone living beside a steel mill that is continuously in operation, with the brass closing off the song as the smoke that belches out of industrial chimneys.
With only one song gone, Burning Blue Soul is already charting the sound of the city wasteland but as Red Cinders In The Sand introduces those sounds that rumble in the distance, the next run of songs brings the listener into the life on one person. Song Without An Ending, whilst initially sounding badly produced - bass too loud, vocals and guitars are blustering in the mix - plays up the tension of the album with a scratchy sense of unease, emphasised by Icing Up's lyrics of a boy being drawn into himself as he sits looking out of his bedsit window. As the lyrics to Delirous make clear, Johnson is fully aware that something has gone wrong but looks incapable of preventing a slide into further isolation, as he looks to be trying to convince himself that, "You're at an age where you should be feeling good but...look in your head, you find you've gone deeper than you should."
With Bugle Boy being a ramshackle mess of phasing, pop chords and lyrical insecurities - witness the half-joke in the ending, "I did know the secret of the universe... only I forgot" - it's left to Another Boy Drowning to gracefully close the album. Produced by Wire's Gilbert and Lewis, the song revisits themes that were present throughout the album but in assuming that it was written and recorded after much of the other material, there's a maturity to the song that is absent elsewhere. For example, beyond the clumsy mix of bravado and innocence, Another Boy Drowning states that, "You've gotta stay optimistic (but) it gets harder by the second" before concluding that, "I don't know nothing and I'm scared that I never will." The song ends beautifully with couple of chords that ring out over the sparse backing, suggesting that the thrill of teenage years and the safety of the parental home are both disappearing fast and that, unprepared for the adult world, Johnson feels lost.
With a clutch of titles that suggest both the end of days and of the year - Time Again For The Golden Sunset and Like A Sun Risin Thru My Garden for the former and Icing Up and The River Flows East In Spring for the latter - Burning Blue Soul places itself in a time as much as in a place. As much as all these titles imply that both nighttime and winter freeze the spirit as much as living in suburbia ever will, so Red Cinders In The Sand soundtracks the clouds of industrial smoke that blot out the sun.
Whilst never a great sounding album - it would not be until Infected that Matt Johnson would refine The The's impressively rich sound - Burning Blue Soul is a wonderful snapshot of late-teenage life in the early eighties when, looking back, almost everything threatened to go wrong. With Threads on television, Margaret Thatcher's social policies pulling the country apart and western governments dabbling in the support of Iraq in the Middle East, Johnson's debut pulls in on itself and lays out a few themes that would reappear in more assured form throughout his work, particularly those that draw a parallel between personal and global politics.
If there is a problem with the album, it's that it can occasionally sound like the terribly self-obsessed poetry as written by sensitive teenage boys but thankfully Johnson never looks as though he's got a copy of The Wasteland in one hand and his own penis in the other. Similarly, there's never the preoccupation with grubby sex that blighted other post-punk records. Instead, Burning Blue Soul should appeal to those for whom The Smiths offered something of a lifeline, if never displaying the self deprecating humour occasionally shown by Morrissey. Instead, Johnson comes across as precious and with a tangible sense of being embarrassed in life but unashamed when admitting his feelings on record. As listeners would find in later albums, Johnson rarely ever made sense but in the confusion of his late-twenties, if his feelings never a mess, at least his music was taking shape.