If Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry was the quintessential soulful white-boy crooner of sleek pop, Matt Johnson is a sort of flipside: the quintessential purveyor of bleak, gritty, introspective emotion. Johnson's diverse arrangements and intimate songwriting set him apart from a host of other contemporaries who don't have the confidence to pull off direct statements about the heavier issues-- religion, the meaning of life, unrequited love, all-pervading lust, suicidal destruction.
It's these deep spiritual, carnal, and moralistic pools that The The most often dive headlong into. You'd have to pick the back catalogue pretty thin to find an example of Johnson grasping at straws. Profound, then, is a good word to describe his consistently haunting songs, which, even at their most detached, resonate somehow deep in their core. It's as if the distilled essence of each and every one is never hidden by the production, no matter how detailed.
Eight years on from their classic, Dusk, and five more since their competent, if unnecessary Hank Williams cover album, Hanky Panky, NakedSelf once again finds Matt Johnson in his element, tackling issues of alienation, global corruption, and urban squalor and decay with potent, more succinct lyrics and some of his most affecting melodies in ages.
Johnson has always been the driving force behind The The, but he's managed to surrounded himself with tasteful, restrained, and prodigiously talented sidemen throughout the years. The band's alumni-- like Johnny Marr and D.C. Collard (whose keyboard work on Dusk was particularly essential to its success)-- have always made sure that The The albums were indeed a band effort. NakedSelf finds Johnson with a whole new group of collaborators, all of whom ably acquit themselves. Earl Harvin's hard-rocking, spare yet varied approach to drumming provides a muscular backdrop for Johnson's powerful vocals and the pervading atmosphere of a city's dingy shadows and less-travelled side streets.
It's sort of a cliché to talk about an artist's "maturation," especially one the occurs 20 years into their career, but the direct nature of many of the songs on NakedSelf make it hard to ignore. "My life is halfway through/ And I still haven't done/ What I'm here to do," Johnson powerfully emotes on "Soul Catcher," one of the album's immediate highlights. The suspicious INXS- via- Dylan cue-card introduction on "Global Eyes" ("Hypnotize/ Homogenize/ Shut your eyes/ Don't criticize") is a bit worrisome, but fortunately that's where the similarities end. Johnson consistently marries thoughtful, vaguely apocalyptic lyrics to strong and dusty guitar figures, all skewered with the sharp aim of a perfectionist craftsman, and stamped with his unmistakable creative seal.
That said, NakedSelf is far from easy listening-- not even for the seasoned fan. It's by far the dirtiest, darkest album Matt Johnson has released to date, lacking the rather 80's sheen of Infected and Mind Bomb, the ambiguous production of his 4AD debut and follow-ups, and the slight indulgences and retreats of Dusk. The rhythm section chugs and clangs along loosely and purposefully, and all manner of both deliberately strummed and on- the- verge- of- imploding guitar lines fill any sonic space not already occupied by Johnson's vocals.
This isn't an album likely to evoke memories of summer passions. Menacing lyrics like, "The train rises up out of the dark/ Above the boarded up boulevards/ And burnt out cars," probably won't become sing-song choruses for drunken college parties. And certainly, these songs aren't as immediately accessible as recent hook-driven efforts by Grandaddy or the Magnetic Fields. But these aren't Matt Johnson's intentions. Nakedself requires your interest-- you have to be willing to sit down and actively listen to Johnson unravel a few yarns out of his deeply troubled psyche. Background music, this isn't. But that's okay. Let the hipper-than-thou have their wallpaper cocktail music. The rest of us can be shaken to our cowering little cores by this emotional beast of an album, unleashed by one of the truly formidable musical mavericks of our time.
-- Dan Gardopee