When I was in high school, a heated, though benign, debate raged among some of my friends as to the more important songwriter to us angst-ridden teens: Stephen Morrissey or Matt Johnson. The ammunition at the time was Soul Mining vs. Hatful of Hollow. How could you go wrong? Seventeen years later, the point is long moot. NakedSelf (yes, I hate the dot-com spelling too) is just the The's fourth release of new material, while the Smiths had an additional three studio albums, plus a scintillating collection of singles, and the Mozzer has, what, a half-dozen solo records by now. I know, I know quantity isn't quality, but - sorry folks - Johnson just doesn't have the output to make the comparison worth the breath.
That said, I'll take what I can get, and NakedSelf is a welcome return. The first record of originals in seven years (the Hank Williams deconstruction in '95 being the last appearance of the Bald One) is, apparently, the first of a veritable flood as two sets of singles and remixes are slated for later in 2000 as well as an official release of the semi-legendary Gun Sluts from 1997. Oh, and the Smiths link is officially broken, as Johnny Marr is ably replaced on guitar by Eric Schermerhorn.
For someone who labors so long on his material, there isn't a quantum leap in style since '93's wonderful Dusk. Modulated vocals, atmospheric keyboards, muddy drum tracks, effects-laden guitars and piercing stories of earth and its inhabitants. As on Dusk, the acoustic guitar-based songs on NakedSelf are the album's strongest. My favorite track, "TheWhisperers," starts a suite of four songs that overcomes some of the more overproduced moments on NakedSelf and has kept me replaying the record with regularity. "Don't get sad/When people that you trusted stab you in the back," Johnson sings to the song's heroine. "So, you thought they were your friends?" he continues falsetto, "Now you know (now you know)/There's one thing in life that holds." And a new generation of fourteen-year-olds can nod in agreement and be comforted that there's someone, somewhere (with a big nose) who knows exactly how they feel.
Next up, "SoulCatcher," a part-affirmation, part-ass-kicking conversation Mr. Johnson has with the reflection he sees every morning. "DecemberSunlight" chronicles the crisp feeling that accompanies the realization of needing to move beyond a past love. Don't worry, it's not all personal. Johnson hasn't forsaken societal observation, recognizing that "Market Force is the new dictator /Manipulator & annihilator" in the directly brutal "GlobalEyes." "SwineFever," a lower light musically and lyrically, also takes consumerism to task.
Two decades on, I am glad Matt Johnson still sees music as his career. I'll let him be a studio wonk so long as he doesn't turn into Kevin Shields on us all. While not up to the crown jewels of Soul Mining or Dusk, NakedSelf belongs on the The's growing less-than-naked shelf.
-- Tim Frommer