Come all ye, witness the return of madcap Matt Johnson.
What a long, bleak career it's been since he took his first tenative steps into showbusiness. ("Matt Johnson, family entertainer. A smile, a song, a psychodrama. Children's parties a specialty"). You see? I've started already. Here is a man almost demanding ridicule, proffering a beaker of piss, begging you to snatch it away. It's all too easy to ignore his occasional habit of turning out excellent records.
When we last heard from him, he was coming on like the Book of Revelations, prophesising apocalyptic events around the Middle East. Oh, how we laughed. Then for unaccounted thousands of Kuwaities and Iraqis, Aramageddon came early. Fortunately, even pop singers aren't clueless enough to crow "Told you so!" from atop a pile of corpses. Anyway, we were still laughing. Not at war, which was spectacularly unfunny, but at Matt's woderful vocals, reminiscent of the devil from "The Exorcist" gargling gasoline at the bottom of a barrel.
"Dusk" is altogether different.
This is a spare, and, for Johnson, remarkably straightforward album. With the band he assembled for "Mind Bomb," including Johnny Marr on guitar, he has bypassed that record's cataclysmic transglobal grind, and the Tory-gutted British landscape of "Infected," to return to something more akin to "Soul Mining" -- as marked by "This is the Night," a direct echo of "This is the Day." From world aggression to self-obsession, Johnson has come back to his roots in the Great Imploding Ego.
"Dusk" is far less immediate than any previous The The LP. A few listens will sharpen such hooks as there are. Johnson's finest songs always seem to have been conjured from whirlwinds. These would appear to have been reeled in from twilight. An appropriately titled record. It's gloomy, of course, but it also gives off a gentle but unmistakable optimism. Matt goes mellow! Strange but true. Okay, he does the requisite self-flagellation, flailing at his weakness over the stretched and mutated blues that characterise his songwriting, pared down here by the band's muted instrumentations; and it's reassuring to see titles like "Dogs of Lust" and "Bluer than Midnight" on the tracklist. But "Love is Stronger than Death," and "Slow Emotion Replay," wherein he renounces his more political past, hint at a hard-won personal victory, however slight.
There's a danger in this. Like Nick Cave, Johnson protects himself from the ridicule he invites with bombastic self-caricature. When he lets this slip, he's left with an alubm that, although frequently absorbing, is still as inherently laughable as any other The The record. "Dusk" needs time to grow; it deserves it. But while it takes it, the Dogs of Lust are closing in, howling with mirth. Beware Matt. They're nearer than you think.
-- David Bennun