Nostalgia doesn’t have to look a certain way. My first memory of nostalgia as a movement, or social phenomena, is from the 1980s, when the States experienced a massive wave of sentimentality for the pop culture of the 1950s. Suddenly, modern trends were pushed aside as the populace indulged a compulsion to revisit and appropriate the music, fashion and lifestyle of that era. It seemed like a big deal at the time, but as I get older I understand that the experience of nostalgia need not take place on such a grand scale. It can be drilled-down to keenly personal moments: a favorite scent, a photograph, or even a song can carry with it the power of full transportation to the past.
Nostalgia for ‘80s New Wave and Post-Punk Rock is big among many friends my age — especially those I met when we were all doing college radio together — because, when those songs were brand new, our immersion in the music scene was inseparable from the way we were living our lives. Music. Was. Everything. When I think about what my life was like in 1983, the year I graduated from college and was facing a litany of consequential life decisions, Soul Mining by the English band The The is the album that soundtracks those memories. I was 22 years old, and so was Matt Johnson, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and essential brain trust of The The.
Comprised of eight all-killer-no-filler tracks, Soul Mining is a lyrically existential, aurally cinematic album that I would describe as a well-oiled juggernaut of emotional and sensory catharsis. While it can be interpreted as a loose concept album, two songs have always, for me at least, stood out from the pack. “This Is The Day” — arguably The The’s most famous song — employs Dylanesqe word economy as the song’s narrator welcomes a hard-reboot of a life looked-back-on with expansive disappointment. With its sublime wistfulness, “This Is The Day” manages to be both melancholy and inspiring simultaneously. It is also the only pop song I can name on which the lead instrument is the accordion. And then there’s “Uncertain Smile,” a song about an unrequited love affair whose pensive lyrics read like the bedsit rumination of a middle-aged loser, despite the fact that Matt Johnson wrote the song when he was just 19 years old. Those two songs are like a time machine for me: when I hear them, I can recall and visualize full chapters of my youth whose details would otherwise be unavailable to me. The power of music.
I admit I hadn’t listened to Soul Mining in (easily) twenty years when I got an email at the end of August announcing that Matt Johnson had put together a new line up of The The, and was embarking on a tour called The Comeback Special. The tour would coincide with screenings, in every US city on the itinerary, of an enigmatically-titled new documentary film, The Inertia Variations, of which Johnson is the subject. Somehow, I managed to score tickets to both events. The rest of this post is about the film, which I saw on a Saturday, and the concert, which I attended the following Monday.
The Inertia Variations is not so much a documentary about The The’s music as it is an intimate expose — with a distinct home movie-vibe — of Matt Johnson and his 16-year hiatus from writing pop songs, recording new The The material, and touring. What was he doing all that time? You are about to find out. Filmmaker Johanna St. Michaels is Johnson’s ex-girlfriend, and the two have a now-grown son together. While freely admitting that they were pretty dysfunctional as a romantic couple, they have obviously become very close friends and behave like brother and sister around each other. The nature of their friendship was no doubt a huge factor in the finished film being not only quite candid and personal, but also full of warmth and humor, and absolutely rampant with moments of nostalgia-inducing heaviness.
Though the documentary, by nature, is unscripted, Johnson provides an inner-monologue voice-over throughout, which is culled from a book of poetry that gives the film its name, The Inertia Variations, in which poet John Tottenham muses on themes such as regret, procrastination and failure. That Johnson can add “gifted actor” to his laundry list of talents is apparent, as he makes Tottenham’s prose resonate as if the words were his own most confessional thoughts.
Much of the film’s central action involves a 12-hour live radio show — broadcast from Radio Cineola, a station based in Johnson’s home — which takes place during the most recent British election cycle. Johnson is clearly passionate about geopolitics and his desire to inform people about political events in a way that isn’t done on the news has become his prime motivator. Following a kind of live marathon format, the broadcast includes assorted musical guests performing live, and Matt taking calls from fans who have dialed-in from around the globe. It is really quite engaging.
What everyone really wants to know, of course, is when will he resurrect The The and make more music? Johnson admits he has no idea, because while he has been very successful writing music for films, as he has not been able to complete the lyrics to a pop song in over 12 years! His inertia is the symptom of a ridiculously prolonged battle with writer’s block: the muse for writing pop songs has utterly deserted him. Even more surprising, Matt reveals that he has not even sung a pop song in over a decade.
The Inertia Variations is also about familial relationships, death, loss and grief. Johnson opens up at length about the death of his younger brother, Eugene, who passed unexpectedly in 1989 (it is never revealed how) at the age of 24. Eugene’s premature death inspired the song “Love is Stronger Than Death,” but Johnson’s grieving process also stunted the momentum of the band. Ten years on, his mother, who Johnson admits never fully recovered from Eugene’s death, passes away. Her death coincides with the writing and recording of the final The The album, NakedSelf, released in 2000.
Johnson’s eldest son, his father, and one of his two surviving brothers, artist Andrew Johnson (who designed album covers for The The, among other bands) also appear in the film. Andrew and Matt are shown in the process of collaborating on a book, which will include Andrew’s illustrations. Tragically, Andrew is diagnosed with brain cancer and dies, during the making of the film, in January of 2016. It is Andrew’s death that provides the catalyst for Matt to finally pen lyrics, inspired by and dedicted to his brother’s memory, and set them to music, for a song he titles “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming.” If that title isn’t golden, I don’t know what is.
At the film’s end, there isn’t a dry eye in the room as Johnson performs the song (marking his first public performance in 15 years), in his home studio for family and friends. “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” is as amazing a song as any classic in The The discography, and Johnson’s voice sounds like no time has passed at all since he was in peak performance mode. The Inertia Variations is a remarkable work of filmmaking, giving the artist personal closure, while also providing a platform from which to launch the next chapter in his life, which is the Comeback Special Tour. The Inertia Variations should be available for home streaming at some point in the near future. (You can get a sneak peak by watching the trailer at the end of this post!)
The New York screening was followed by a Q&A with Johnson, St. Michaels and musician James Eller, who is the bassist and musical director for The The’s current line-up. This session was lots of fun, as the relatively intimate gathering included many diehard fans whose lives have been profoundly affected by Matt Johnson’s music. Some audience members had traveled not only from cities within reasonable driving distances from Manhattan, such as Stamford and Boston, but from as far away as Northern Ireland and Mexico to attend one of the shows, see the film, and have a rare opportunity to meet Matt — who stuck around to sign and take photos — in person. My favorite question came from one fan who spent a few minutes heaping the praise on Soul Mining before asking Johnson if that was his favorite The The album. Hilariously, he admitted that not only is Soul Mining not his favorite album, but in fact he doesn’t think of it much, because he was 21 when he made the album and he is a different person now. I’m not sure people were ready to hear that, but at least he was honest.
Now, let’s go to the show!
Behold: The Beacon Theatre Marquee, Above, and My Ticket, Below!
I really loved the movie, and with a couple of days to digest it and come down off the little cloud I was on from having Matt ask me my name before signing my copy of Soul Mining, I felt like it was a good primer for the show at NYC’s fabulous Beacon Theatre. The The’s full band lineup for the live shows features a member from each of the three previous The The world tours: James Eller on bass (representing the Versus The World tour), DC Collard on keyboards (representing the Lonely Planet tour) and Earl Harvin on drums (representing the Naked tour). They are joined by seasoned touring and session guitarist Barrie Cadogan, who was recommend to Johnson by Johnny Marr, and whose eponymous band Little Barrie wrote the song that’s used as the Theme from Better Call Saul! As an aside, Little Barrie is one of my top two favorite bands!
Johnson has stated that for this tour, he wanted to strip-down many of the songs and reduce the sonic palette, so the band wouldn’t be using any samplers, click-tracks, sequencers or synthesizers. It would just be five musicians, performing reinterpretations of The The’s back catalogue. He also announced to the crowd that, since the band were limiting their use of electronics, he would really appreciate it if the audience did the same and put their phones away.
I was happy to comply, so all of my photos were taken on a point-and-shoot camera from halfway back on the floor. While they are not great, at least you can get a feel for what it looked like inside the Beacon that evening.
“The songs are not intended to be reproductions of the album versions, and many of them don’t sound like they do on the old recordings. Some of the songs do, but if people really want to hear the albums, they should just put on headphones and listen to the albums.” — Matt Johnson
Matt has also stated, on The The’s newly resurrected website, that they have intentionally limited the amount of sounds at their disposal, so the band has to work a bit harder since they can’t rely on recreating the exact sounds from the album (for example, there were no accordions on stage), and decisions are therefore based on creating new arrangements. What is most important is that the emotional force of the songs continues to shine through. In this way, favorite songs (which to my ears were still highly recognizable) felt less like cliched ’80s signifiers, and more like tools being used to excavate emotions from the past. The band was so tight, Matt’s vocals were ridiculously on-point, and the entire set was perfect.
Audiovisual collage artist Vicki Bennett (aka People Like Us), created the kaleidoscopic video installation for the tour, and backdrop visuals also included page after page of pen and ink drawings from Andrew Johnson’s sketch book, which I recognized from having seen them in The Inertia Variations.
The band’s much-anticipated performance of “This Is The Day” was all the more emotionally charged when coupled with the official video for that song (from 1984), which appeared behind the band in sync with Matt’s vocals. Most people probably don’t realize that both of Johnson’s parents and all three of his brothers appear in that video. At the very end of the song, his family members appear one at a time to mouth the line, “This is the day” before fading into the next frame. With both of his parents now gone (Johnson’s father passed away this summer) and two of his brothers also deceased, an already deeply powerful song served as a symbolic family requiem. There were some wet eyes during that song, and two of them were mine.
The The Setlist for the Comeback Special Tour at Beacon Theatre, New York City
1. Global Eyes
2. Sweet Bird of Truth
3. Flesh and Bones
5. The Beat(en) Generation
6. Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)
7. We Can’t Stop What’s Coming
8. Beyond Love
9. Love Is Stronger Than Death
10. Dogs of Lust
11. Helpline Operator
12. This Is the Night
13. This Is the Day
14. Soul Catcher
15. Bugle Boy
16. Slow Emotion Replay
17. I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover)
18. Like a Sun Risin Thru My Garden
20. I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life)
21. True Happiness This Way Lies
22. Uncertain Smile
23. Lonely Planet
Check Out the Trailer for The Inertia Variations Below!