A look back at The The’s decade-ending 1989 classic Mind Bomb
The eighties were ending–that decade of conspicuous consumption and pure international tension was falling with the Berlin Wall, everyone hungover with dread, awaiting the next great sea change that would usher in a potentially halcyon future.
Soon, in the music world, those bright neon hues and garish styles would slowly ebb into working-class plaid and emotional bloodletting, but in 1990 the alternative explosion was still a couple of years in the offing. Every decade’s prevailing culture bleeds over into the following one, the unofficially calendar of trends always a few years late catching up to the actual tectonic shift of time. The cultural zeitgeist of the 80s continues to loom large, of course, a pastel ghost that years and technology have struggled to entirely exorcise. It’s only with the distance of several decades that one can understand just how massive a shift the 80s represented.
The The were in many ways a quintessentially 80s band, the darkly-throbbing dance-pop and gleaming post-punk of albums like Soul Mining and Infected slotting neatly alongside Factory Records favorites such as New Order and The Happy Mondays. Matt Johnson’s political-minded lyrics reflected the world’s messy socio-political situation on a microcosmic, danceable scale, which scanned well with the many Talking Heads and Wires of the wider international scene. However, with 1989’s Mind Bomb, Johnson also looked inward, broadening his focus from messy politics alone to the sonic scope of his own art, enlisting friends like ex-Smiths legend Johnny Marr and a top-form Sinead O’Connor to make flesh of his cerebral designs. Tackling fresh subject matters as love and spirituality, Mind Bomb was The The writ large, on a grander and more profound scale.
Though Johnson retained his role as bandleader and songsmith, Marr’s textural contributions to the album added an elemental shimmer that past The The albums had filled with cavernous space. This created a stunning beqdrock upon which Johnson’s lyrics flowered, a new strain of hope and bittersweet nostalgia found between his usual riot-act reading of the modern miasma. The lone tune co-written with Marr, “Gravitate To Me”, is the album’s centerpiece and clearest highlight, a true melding of two unique compositional visions. “I’ve been watching you for ages, you’re a boat without a mast, struggling with the tide of destiny, between the future and the past”. The song’s genius is in its question of perspective with these lines: are these words from the viewpoint of an obsessive lover, a jealous friend, or something more sinister, perhaps an omniscient and endlessly disappointed God? Mind Bomb is not an album of easy answers. Instead, its post-industrial/New Wave grandeur raises troubling inquiries and offers and array of possible paths forward, with something like optimism.
The album bears a heaviness that Johnson’s more spacious earlier works gloss over, dense and claustrophobic in places while heady and layered in others. ‘Good Morning, Beautiful’s soulful wail and breezy harmonica presage the later gospel thrum of Spiritualized, while ‘The Beat(en) Generation’ matches its cleverly astute lyrical observations with a lovestruck acoustic cantor that oddly underlines the song’s overriding rhetoric rather than counterpoints it. Mind Bomb is a deeply sad album, but one not ready to give in to the sorry state of society. In such a dichotomy, it becomes an album more prescient of the coming 90s than a funereal farewell to the last fading lights of its 80s environs. The Sinead duet, ‘Kingdom Of Rain’, opens with a literal alarm call bellowing through a storm, before the smooth organ-hued blue and grey of the song shift into focus. As always, Johnson’s paranoid, near-menacing whisper/groan is the clear focus, but beneath it swirls a heady sound world of trembling guitars, funk-indebted bass, and bright acoustic touches. The The’s opus was one of many albums enlivened by Marr’s journeyman presence during his post-Smiths years, and he’d go on to benevolent and occasionally revelatory work with Electronic, The Pet Shop Boys, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs, among others. Here, his presence is generous without being too heavily leaned-upon, notable but not star-making, and it makes Mind Bomb glisten and groove. This is where the tension of Infected meets the musical ambition of Soul Mining, in a perfect and iconoclastic harmony.
Like the 80s themselves, it wouldn’t last. Following Mind Bomb and the acerbic Dusk, Johnson became sole master and commander of the The The moniker once more, and diminishing returns became apparent, as ensuing works like Hanky Panky (a Hank Williams covers album) were met with charges of gloomy self-parody, relentless dourness, or an apparent lack of fresh ideas. Twenty years on, though, it’s eerie how much remains the same as the 1989-1990 of Mind Bomb’s immediate topography. Once again the free world is threatened by a reactionary fascism and oppressive religious movements, and once more there is reason for stubborn hope bleeding through the cracks of entropy and horror and abuse. Perhaps Mind Bomb’s ultimate legacy lies with its greatest irony, that even the most broadly 80s-esque of Matt Johnson’s albums is also the most relevant today, in 2019.
AUDIO: Mind Bomb (full album)