“How could anyone know me, when I don’t even know myself?”
Oh there’s upbeat delivery in The The’s first studio LP, but it’s certainly not a happy message being conveyed. Frontman Matt Johnson’s solo release two years earlier, Burning Blue Soul (which is commonly mistaken as a The The release), was so negative both lyrically and sonically he was practically moving backwards in emotional development. Soul Mining sees, on the whole, Johnson lightening up a bit, or at the very least shrouding his lyrical negativity in upbeat music.
The first track spells the end of Johnson’s overtly dour attitude, a la his solo work, instead pushing steadily into his trademark halfheartedly obscured societal critiques. All that follows are belters, songs you want to sing along to – lyrical message be damned. It’s pleasant in a negative way. Positively negative. Negatively positive. From Soul Mining onward, Johnson would regress back to pure, unadulterated cynicism. Damning religion, damning the government, and damning his shortcomings.
Soul Mining is, sonically, the odd one out in The The’s catalog, as is the case with many artist’s first releases. It’s not at all similar in sound to any of their future releases. The music itself is light and buoyant, and yet can become hauntingly dark paired with Matt Johnson’s cynical lyricism. I find the Jools Holland piano solo on Uncertain Smile to not jive with the overall feel of the LP. But maybe that’s because I find Jools to be a dreadfully boring man.
Desirous of breaking into the commercial market, Johnson, with the help of his session musicians (The The weren’t really a static group, much like Love, or Pulp) implemented new-wave, and tribal motifs. Where a lot of 80s new wave albums have become a casualty of time, Soul Mining has stubbornly retained its standing. It’s the most pop-y of their releases, and it shows. What do you expect when you follow the first track, an introspective, defeatist song, with introspective auspicious ones? Commercial potential, that’s what. The commercial market does not want to hear plainly sad songs, so Johnson made them happy-sad songs. Ten times over, and it’s catchy and approachable as hell.
As much as I enjoy this album, I find it really doesn’t reflect The The’s potential, or future sound. It’s no Infected, released three years later, but it is a reasonable example of introspective new-wave (dare I say it..) pop…of which there are really very few examples to begin with.