Thursday, April 10, 2014

Classic Album Review: The The - Soul Mining (1983)

Just a quick look at an album about to enjoy a 30th anniversary Deluxe makeover – which is due for release on June 30 2014. It’s an album I’ve endured a love/hate relationship with over the years after being an early convert and fan. On occasions I’ve returned to it and thoroughly enjoyed it, yet at other times I’ve found myself wondering what all the fuss was about ... but I suppose the fact that I’m looking forward to a Deluxe version some 30 years on is perhaps the best indicator of how I feel about it. I wrote a review for the album half a dozen years ago (for another site) and I thought I’d reproduce that here. Even at that point it appears I still couldn’t make up my mind ...

Soul Mining was the debut album for ridiculously-named The The, aka Matt Johnson, and when it was released in 1983 it met with much critical acclaim due to its insightful, immediately intimate, and often soul-baring lyrical content. Many in the music press at the time considered it to be merely the first instalment of what would surely be a succession of fine albums from Johnson. They were wrong. For me, Soul Mining stands today, the best part of a quarter of a century later, as the high watermark in Johnson’s rather fragmented career, and rarely would he come close to approaching such heights again.

Or perhaps I should rephrase that – rarely would Johnson emulate the heights that the *best* tracks on the album reach, and Soul Mining remains a somewhat inconsistent and uneven release.

It is no coincidence that two of the album’s three truly outstanding tracks – ‘This Is The Day’ and ‘Perfect’* – are also its most uplifting and optimistic moments, full of self-evaluation and wry observations about the state of the world and Johnson’s place in it. While both songs are laced with cynicism, dark paranoia, and equally large helpings of sarcasm, what makes them uplifting is their poppy structure and Johnson soothing us with a couple of genuinely positive life-affirming declarations in each chorus:
On ‘This Is The Day’

“This is the day, my life begins to change, This is the day, when things fall into place”
On ‘Perfect’

“Oh what a perfect day, to think about myself, My feet are firmly screwed to the floor, what is there to fear from such a regular world”
‘Uncertain Smile’ is the third stand-out, not so much for its similarly dark and contemplative lyrics, but mainly for the cameo hand offered by Jools Holland and his mastery of the keys. It’s superb, and there is a piano “solo” (go figure!) tucked away in there that really has to be heard to be believed. 

The rest of the album? … well, to be perfectly honest I struggle with it, and I just find the remaining five tracks to be far less friendly on the ear - at best - and downright inaccessible - at worst. It all feels a little overbearing and perhaps Johnson was guilty of trying a bit too hard. I dunno, maybe there’s just a little too much heart-on-sleeve self-loathing for my taste.
Overall, the aptly-titled Soul Mining is ultimately not as good as the majority of critics rated it at the time, but it is still well worth a listen nonetheless, if only for its three essential and quite brilliant highlights.
* The original vinyl LP edition of Soul Mining did not include ‘Perfect’, which was actually a great shame because it really was a genuine Eighties classic, and given that it was released as a single around the same time as the album, it would normally have been an automatic inclusion. Curiously, on my belated CD release (purchased in the UK circa 1994) it appears as an ideal upbeat album closer. I also note the blurb on the Deluxe release mentions the exclusion of ‘Perfect’ on the original album ... but yep, I’ve checked again and it’s right there on my CD. So either I’m completely bonkers or it was added belatedly to some versions/formats. I’m opting for the latter.
For details on the upcoming 2014 Deluxe version go here.
Oh, and here’s ‘Perfect’:

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