The The - Soul Mining
Being the first album to bear the credit to The The - Burning Blue Soul was originally released as a Matt Johnson album - Soul Mining continued the themes from the earlier album but in place of the clumsy attempts at global politics, Soul Mining goes further still in Johnson's examination of the self. Whether it is his horror at seeing the innocence of childhood disappearing from sight or the wreckage of yet another failed relationship strewn about his apartment, Johnson was unflinching across eight songs, each of which would be unbearable were it not for the sweet pop that, like Talk Talk, scored songs that revealed the writer as emotionally open and unforgiving about himself.
However, as anyone who had bought Burning Blue Soul and was expecting more tense post-punk would quickly find, Soul Mining offers one of the most radical departures from an existing sound as was possible. Gone were the scratchy guitars, frenzied sampling on primitive tape decks and Johnson's own clumsy way with a lyric to be replaced by drum machines, space in the arrangements, delicate synthesisers and an ability to call in his experiences in a line or two. Where Burning Blue Soul ground Christmas cracker jokes alongside wordplay, Soul Mining saw Johnson singing of love, lust and loneliness in such an assured manner that suggested he had finally experienced something of life, which was not an impression offered by his earlier work.
The album opens in a peculiar manner as a countdown, which appears to have been sampled from a NASA rocket launch, omits the number seven. As the opening minutes layer on the keyboards bar-by-bar, Johnson recalls his hiding in the garden during childhood before admitting that, "...all the people I looked up to are no longer there." As the song builds through snaps of samples, a sheer pop arrangement and Johnson's startling coda of, "My mind has been polluted", I've Been Waitin' For Tomorrow (All of My Life) sets out to expose how childhood quickly fades into adulthood and how life really doesn't get much better as the years pass.
If the opening song not only carries on the tension felt across Burning Blue Soul but also its themes, then Soul Mining only really begins with This Is The Day, which opens with a gentle synthesiser melody before bursting into pop that, complete with handclaps under a great chorus, could also have found a home on an ABC, Duran Duran or early Talk Talk record. Lyrically, though, the song is all Johnson's, albeit a departure from the gloom of the opening song, in that there is some hope included in the words. Despite including the line, "This is the day - your life will surely change", surely sounding as through Johnson utters those words every morning, This Is The Day looks in at the moments when you feel as though memories are all that are left. In moving past the bleak pop of The Sinking Feeling, Soul Mining's next great moment is the wonderful Uncertain Smile.
Never before and rarely since has Matt Johnson offered such a heartfelt love song as he does on Uncertain Smile. Where the three earlier songs on the album all find Johnson hiding either in his garden or behind the curtains in his bedroom feeling unable to face the world, Uncertain Smile has him retreating inside once again but, unlike before, he does so to dream of an unnamed girl, saying, "I've got you under my skin where the rain can't get in...just shout, I'll try and swim and pull you out." Featuring a great pop arrangement, Uncertain Smile is wonderfully simple but, in the second half of the song, features a piano solo from Jools Holland so dazzling that it's possible to forgive the groovy feller almost anything. Mixing rhythm'n'blues, pop and swooping runs across the keyboard, Uncertain Smile is a wonderful centrepiece to Soul Mining and, with only four of the eight tracks gone, moves back into introspection.
The Twilight Hour follows Uncertain Smile, dripping with paranoia, as Johnson tells of sitting in at night, pulling his life apart as a love affair falls apart, over songwriting that tenderly hints at a loss of confidence. With the title track offering a bleak outlook on the future over a beautiful guitar pattern, Giant completes the original tracklisting with a storming mix of keyboards, simple rhythm patterns and a gutsy male choir that bellows over Johnson's asking of himself, "How can anyone know me, when I don't even know myself?"
And so the original LP finished but with the reissue of the album on CD, Soul Mining comes with Perfect, originally a single that had been planned for the aborted Pornography Of Despair album. By bridging the gap between Burning Blue Soul and Soul Mining, Perfect is a simple little song, which mixes a warm harmonica into Johnson's telling of a walk around a chilly English town, concluding that, "what is there to fear from such a regular world?" Following the bleak emptiness of Johnson's life that had been written about elsewhere, Perfect sees that, amongst the tombstones in a cemetery, an old man 'fingering his perishing flesh' and a town slowly turning to Hell, Johnson's life isn't as bad as it had been thought and in turning to go home, things will be fine in the end.
As Soul Mining had moved forward in leaps and bounds from Burning Blue Soul, so Perfect is the sound of Matt Johnson leaving the bedroom, the paranoid wait for a telephone call and the personal search for an identity behind in favour of once more joining the world. As these two early albums finally conclude that the world really isn't such a bad place, so The The moved on to Infected and the frenzied telling of a world that was really so much worse than the stillness of an English town had indicated. With Aids, prostitution, war, downed American pilots and the breaking down of the inner cities all jostling for space on Johnson's horizon, so Infected would eventually make Perfect little more than childhood optimism, thereby turning to Soul Mining's opening song. Yet it was to be enjoyed while it lasted as it would be many years until Johnson was seen to crack a musical smile once again.