The The - Infected
Despite a reputation to the contrary, Matt Johnson always made the American influences in his music clear, noting that the pub in which he grew up always had Coca-Cola in the fridge, Wrigleys Chewing Gum in the cupboards and Motown drifting up through the floorboards from the jukebox in the barroom downstairs, which he devoured. Of course, writing stomping soul and r'n'b when you're growing up in a pub in Essex and recording on a four track in the basement would have been little more than pastiche.
The arrival of punk, however, gave Johnson an opportunity to look elsewhere for material but, with little of life in hand, he turned to himself for his first two albums - Burning Blue Soul and Soul Mining - as well as the aborted The Pornography Of Despair. Despite the occasional dalliance with politics, these albums were bedsit pop and saw little of what was happening outside the view from the front window.
By 1986, shortly before Margaret Thatcher declared there was no longer such a thing as society, Matt Johnson had come to much the same conclusion and had written Heartland as a response. Both lyrically and musically, the song was far beyond anything he had written before, with the intro of clanging steel recalling Burning Blue Soul's Red Cinders In the Sand before fading into piano and guitar. But if the music was gentle, then the words were not, with a scabrous assault on the Britain of the eighties. As Johnson took a position overlooking a city, watching the seasons change, he sounded disgusted by what he found, describing Britain as, "the place where pensioners are raped" and the landscape of the inner cities as, "the Saturday morning cinema that lies crumbling to the ground / and the piss-stinking shopping centre in the new side of town." Returning to the theme of an approaching winter that had previously stretched across Burning Blue Soul, Johnson sang of long shadows across the country, of people's frustration at no longer being listened to and of the UK's subservience to the US. Almost twenty years on and with a war on the gulf fought over intelligence that has since been proven to be wrong, Johnson's words that, "the wars on the televisions will never be explained" look as pertinent as ever. With the song refraining to the words, "This is the 51st state of the USA", Johnson worried aloud about the use of British airforce bases for the air attack on Libya in 1986 as much as, one assumes, he does to this day with the attacks on Iraq.
The attack on Libya would also influence the album's fifth track, Sweet Bird Of Truth, a story of an American pilot shot down over the Gulf of Arabia and running scared, admitting, "I don't know what's wrong or right" before the chorus fights off muscular horns and Johnson's radio chatter. Similarly, Angels Of Deception spins a radio dial through American FM stations before despair sets in with a wail of, "Jesus Wept! Jesus Christ! I can't see for...the dollar signs in my eyes." Elsewhere, the song, once more, concerns itself with the US influence on the UK, with Johnson saying that, "...the devil's in town...he's stuck his missiles in your gardens, his theories down your throat." Little surprise, then, that the reactionary right attacked Johnson for a perceived anti-Americanism when it really appeared as though he was doing little more than drawing a connection between the influence of global politics on the spirit of the individual.
If these three songs make Infected sound as earnest and, subsequently, as dull as a Levellers album, then the remaining five songs on the album should offer some hope. The title track, and first on the album, is a euphoric rock song, complete with rhythms stripped off hard electronica, on which Johnson sings about HIV/AIDS. With his own guitar stuttering in the background, a female choir cooing to lyrics about lust and desire and an uplifting trumpet solo two-thirds in, Infected builds up like the best dance songs before collapsing around guitar. Slow Train To Dawn is a great modern blues song that piles on top of a rhythm that mixes the sound of a train passing with the shove of a blues harp whilst the last-but-one song, Twilight Of A Champion, is both lyrically and musically raw, seeing a failed businessman's last moments as his mouth closes around the barrel of a gun.
The album's last song, if you don't include the little guitar break that fades in and out at the end, is The Mercy Beat, which is lyrically breathtaking as Johnson barrels through a tale of taking on the devil and winning, armed with nothing more than, "a bottle of vodka in my overcoat and my dog eared bible...lost overboard." Watching, "the vultures and crows...fixin' up some tombstones", Johnson retreats into the city to conclude the battle with 'little Lucifer' over the fate of his soul, concluding that it was only ever about sating his desires. The Mercy Beat skips genres from verse to verse, never really offering a chorus, with each return to the lyric bringing something new to The The, concluding that, no matter how dazzling this album was relative to its predecessors, Johnson was on such a roll that one song alone could offer greater variety than this previous two albums.
The best moment on the album, however, belongs to Out Of The Blue (Into The Fire), in which a tired Johnson leaves his flat, drives into the city, "through the darkness of a corridor and into a strangers bed." Being, at heart, a story about a jaded westerner looking for to cure his guilt by a visit to a prostitute in a brothel that reeked of disinfectant, Out Of The Blue (Into The Fire) concludes with Johnson unable to do much as a woman gently chides him with, "Come, my love, with your desire / Out of the blue...and into the fire" as the music shifts from electric folk to a beautifully orchestrated end as performed by the Astarti String Orchestra.
Infected is an album that it would be difficult to become tired of. Unlike other The The albums, which have tended to find a sound and have resolutely stuck with it, Infected rarely ever stands still and employs a big, layered sound to get big messages across. Indeed, what with only offering eight songs, albeit eight superb songs, Infected hits hard and remains, to this reviewer at least, a genuinely classic album, if one that is sorely underrated and, almost twenty years on, rather forgotten about.
Before Infected, The The were a musically naive but lyrically strong band whereas after, they struggled to move on from occasionally clumsy rhetoric. Infected is the point at which everything came together and, like U2 with Achtung Baby!, The Rolling Stones with Exile On Main St. and My Bloody Valentine with Loveless, years of experimentation and persistence had finally delivered. For a bleak portrait of the vacuum at the heart of western morality, there is no better album but that it's capable of moving the heart as well as the head is why Infected gets a 10.