Matt Johnson, the heart, mind, and lungs of The The has never been one to overexpose his idiosyncratic talent. His albums emerge after three year silences and his stage work is similarly intermittent. In the gaps, he travels for the next time. Yet the wait for his recorded outpourings, is invariably worthwhile and as the qualities of "Dusk," his more recent long player, sink in, he is taking his band -- an Anglo-American alliance on this occasion -- around the UK circuit for only the second time in a lengthy career. At Manchester's Apollo Theatre, a former Deco jewel in a sea of urban wasteland, its faded, jaded plushness a suitable metaphor for the world Johnson reflects upon in his impassioned compositions, The The made a steady, if unspectactular, start to their British tour.
Johnson's songs are constructed on an intriguing premise. While his words, short, sharp, and shocking, tangle with contemporary matters -- in summary, the politics of despair -- the muscial wrapping has an almost reassuring familiarity. Wedges of rootsy, American sound -- haunting gospel piano by DC Collard on "Bluer Than Midnight" and Jim Fitting's lyrical harmonica excursions throughout -- lend a poignant counterbalance to a more sinister sub-text, well-contained in the classic "Heartland."
The link between the two is Johnson's extraordinary voice, scraping the gravel of the soul one minute, rising confidently and boldly the next to fully realise the melodic possibilities of each peice. "Love is Stronger Than Death," perhaps the finest shot on the latest collection, was typical, its message a curious blend of the hopeful and the darkly maudlin.
The set, extended by an encore that included a pair of early favourites, "This is the Day," soon to be reissued as "That Was the Day," and "Uncertain Smile," was recieved thoughtfully rather than uproariously by a strangely impassive house, but as a curtain-raiser the concert augured well.