The The’s Soul Mining (1983) is my all-time favourite album. I didn’t put it at number one, so the sensible thing would have been to grow the suspense and keep it to ten. It appears at three because it affected me after the first two.
The The was the project of Englishman Matt Johnson and I first heard of him a year or so earlier. I was living in Dublin and it didn’t take me long to be drawn to the city’s two independent record stores Freebird on Grafton St and the edgier Base X on the Northside where I regularly emptied my wallet on new music and the fanzine Vox. Printed in cheap black and white it helped me learn about Irish post-punk bands like the Virgin Prunes and Microdisney and there was also a hefty amount of interesting new English product.
They promoted a record label called Cherry Red, which occasionally pulled its bands together for a compilation album, most successfully in the brilliant Pillows and Prayers which I loved and for which I “paid no more than 99p” for as the sticker on the cover suggested when it came out in 1982. Pillows featured their top bands like The Monochrome Set and Everything But the Girl, but not Johnson who featured in Cherry Red’s earlier compilation.
Called Perspectives and Distortion (1981), the earlier album was mostly inaccessible and up itself. There was one quirky tune on Perspectives which did quicken the pulse. That song What Stanley Saw recorded under the name Matt Johnson never made the debut solo album that followed later that year, because by then he had moved to 4AD. That album Burning Blue Soul was patchy post-punk but marked Johnson out as a serious talent and it had at least three classic tracks.
The Soul went from Burning Blue to Mining in 1983. This second album was released under a new name The The, but it was still mainly Matt Johnson, and it was brilliance of a whole new order, even if that order was mostly early 20s male angst. I was just two years younger than Johnson so he spoke to me. From the butchered countdown opening I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life) Johnson unleashes all his problems in a pounding song that builds up to the polluted/diluted finish.
Then just as quickly Johnson pulls us out of misery in This is The Day “when things fall into place.” But don’t get used to that either because the Sinking Feeling is never far away. “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay / That’s gnawing at the heart of the country”. It was manic depression writ large and his lyrics had “histrionic gaucheness” as the Guardian said, but it was also strikingly precocious and they held together “a kaleidoscopic array of musical influences.” Those influences came out in the album’s best track: An Uncertain Smile which ends side one. Smile stared down some serious demons but it also contained a brilliant Jools Holland piano solo that occupies the entire second half of the song. It is as the Guardian said “a genuinely astonishing performance” by Holland, though actually two separate pieces that Johnson weaved together over an older song of his.
The second half is more in Johnson’s moody vein. The final track, the ten minute epic Giant screamed “How can anyone know me / When I don’t even know myself.” I assume Johnson knows himself well these days. He hasn’t recorded prolifically since Mining (Dusk and Infected are both worth a listen) and I was privileged to see him play live in Brisbane in the late 90s. The handful of Soul Mining songs he played got the best reception. As Melody Maker, this album is great pop, “a barometer to your day” that will enhance whatever mood you are in. There is a reason it appears in countless lists of best albums of the 80s or beyond. Soul mining goes on forever.