December 20, 2009

Dan O'Bannon, 1946-2009.

American screenwriter and film director Daniel O'Bannon has passed away. Perhaps best known for authoring the script for Alien, O'Bannon also wrote the short story comic The Long Tomorrow, illustrated by Jean "Mœbius" Giraud, which became a source of inspiration for the scenography of Blade Runner.

December 3, 2009

Hear Again: Mind Bomb.

Ten years after performing for the very first time (during Mrs Thatcher's first month in office), what essentially was Matt Johnson with a guitar, backed by drum-machines and a host of session players, had morphed into a fully fledged band (two years before Mrs Thatcher's reign ended).

Though ostensibly a supergroup, the The's late 1980s line-up differed in a very important way from such superfluous entities, that are more often than not established to conflate professional musicians' self-indulgence with unsophisticated fans pocketbooks. Johnson, a natural musician playing merely to write without honing his skill much, remained in complete control of his vision, surrounding himself with sympathetic musicians he'd interviewed rather than auditioned.

These highly skilled and experienced hands, playing for the love of playing, not only backed Johnson up, but embellished his ideas, articulating them more fully than he could ever have hoped to do by himself. The result, the The's first album as a band proper, being simpler yet more articulated than those preceding it - without losing the The's distinctive dichotomy of unbridled optimism and tortured anguish.

The eight songs on Mind Bomb (the seventh album recorded by Johnson but only the fourth released) range in style from New Wave, over "white" funk, to jangly Merseybeat, tracing the havoc individual inner turmoil wreaks on the global, collective soul. On bass, seasoned session bassist James Eller, on drums, former ABC percussionist Dave Palmer, and on guitar, former The Smiths guitar hero Johnny Marr - all old friends of Johnson, who'd patiently waited for the opportunity to play together.

Though keeping with the The's open door policy, additional flourishes were also added by session stalwarts like minimalist composer Andrew Poppy, pianist Paul "Wix" Wickens, percussionist Danny Cummings, violinist Gavyn Wright (who'd appear on The Beloved's Happiness a year later), Canadian trombonist Ashley Slater, and bassist Danny Thompson. All surrounding Matt Johnson, the masterminding composer, writing some of the best lyrics - if not music - of his career.

Languidly, almost lazily uncoiling itself in the nuclear dawn with Goodmorning Beautiful, the album launches its full scale assault with Armageddon Days (Are Here Again), a piece of pop the prescience of which has only grown more impressive - and more ominous - with time:

"Islam is rising / the Christians mobilising
the world is on its elbows and knees / It's
forgotten the message and worships the creeds"

With an intro interpolated from Sweet's The Ballroom Blitz, and backed by the full men's chorus of the Ambrosian Singers, Johnson attempts to finally put to rest the notion that some higher power can be invoked to bear responsibility for our actions:

"... God didn't build himself that throne /
God doesn't live in Israel or Rome /
God doesn't belong to the Yankee dollar /
God doesn't plant the bombs for Hezbollah"

Having further pondered the importance and place of faith in The Violence of Truth, the first side concludes with the earnestly bittersweet Kingdom of Rain, a duet with a particularly hurt and bitter Sinéad O'Connor. Seemingly indulging Johnson's penchant for recording with female artists on the verge of commercial breakthrough, O'Connor helps Johnson deliver a cathartic lament over a once vibrant relationship gone cold:

"You think you know about life /
You think you know about love /
But when you put your hands inside me /
it doesn't even feel like I'm being touched /
And you were the boy I wanted to cry with /
You were the boy I wanted to die with /
You move further from my side / year by year
while still making love / dutifully sincere

But as silent as the car lights /
that move across the room /
as cold as our bodies / silhouetted
by the Moon / and I would lie
awake and wonder / is it just me?
Or is this the way that love /
is supposed to be?"

"Our bed is empty / the fire is out
and all the love we had to give /
is all spurted out /
There's no more blood / and
no more pain / in our
kingdom of rain"

The second side rips open with The Beat(en) Generation, the The's greatest hit in Britain, a scathing yet sympathetic assessment of the Baby Boomers, intentionally composed to be as accessible as possible - camouflaging its clear indictment of the Boomers as innocuous pop. However, Johnson doesn't beat his audience over the head with his opinions, avoiding patronising posturing as well as preaching to the converted, fully aware that engaged people already know what the problems are.

Johnson then briefly returns to the relationship that's run its course in August & September, taking on the role of the one left behind, perhaps only imagining a last encounter with a former partner:

"What kind of man / was I? / Who would
sacrifice your happiness / to satisfy his pride?
What kind of man / was I? / Who would
delay your destiny / to appease his tiny mind?
Was our love too strong to die? / Or were we
just to weak to kill it?"

Yet the final two tracks close the album on an uplifting, positive - if not wholly reconciliatory - note, professing an unwavering faith in the redeeming qualities of love. The sensual glissandos now closely associated with the The's sound, attempt to seduce the listener just as Johnson attmpts to seduce with sheer willpower in the electronic blues that is Gravitate to Me, a track co-written with Marr, and a distant cousin to Muddy Water's Manish Boy:

"This world ain't strong enough /
to keep us from each other / for
we are kindred spirits / born
to become Earthly lovers"

As Johnson sings about the peculiar attraction of people we inexplicably feel we've met before and somehow know more than we actually do, Eller's subterranean bass provides depth and accentuates the light groove of what is the album's most electronic and dance floor oriented track.

"There is something in your voice /
Something behind your eyes /
Something inside your heart / that
is beating in time with mine."

Beyond Love, finally, ventures even further in celebrating love's comforting pleasures, to a practically microcosmic level. Life itself, Johnson argues, is an unstoppable force using sexual attraction and the feelings with which we imbue our relationships merely as a means to an end. Life constantly entangles us, mires us in love, simply to perpetuate itself. But the track isn't just a plea for understanding but also greater sensuality:

"There are some things in life /
that you just can't fight / ...
So let's take off our crosses /
and lay them in a tin / and
let our weaknesses become
virtue / instead of sin"

Working with two different producers, Warne Livesey (perhaps best known for his work with Midnight Oil) and Roli Mossiman (former Swans drummer, best known for helping unleash The Young Gods), literally splitting the songs between the two, the album essentially consists of two halves tangled together, like the jumbled thoughts in a particularly over-heated mind. There's frailty, there's obsession, there's guilt, and there's lust, charging the mind bombs we cannot help but harbour, which invariably alter our lives and the world we inhabit once unleashed.

It's an agnostic's album, espousing a spiritual commonsense, a yearning to finally grow up, to reach the next level physically as well as emotionally. Its love songs not encapsulating the unrequited yearning of a pining teenager, but the doubts and mixed emotions of an adult. It's a work in which the line of conflict is drawn between abstract reason and physical nature, centering on the feelings we feel despite ourselves, and cannot flick off the way one turns out a light.

The (literal) two sides of the album are reflected in its sleeve, juxtaposing Fiona Skinner's take on the extraordinary John Heartfield's bayoneted dove, with Andrew Macpherson's just-jeans-and-t-shirt portrait of Matt Johnson - a more intimate and stripped down sleeve than the The's previous Andy "Dog" Johnson designs.

Fusing the sensual and the political, it's an album of a kind that's rarely recorded today, twenty years later, and while its earnestness at times gets uncomfortably close to adolescent histrionics, the quality of the music more than compensates for its lyrical shortcomings. It's pop music created by a musician with a singular vision, for everyone as riddled with guilt and obsessed with life as he was - and perhaps still is.


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