This is the land, where nothing changes,
the land of red buses & blue blooded babies,
This is the place, where pensioners are raped,
And the hearts are being cut, from the welfare state,
Let the poor drink the milk, while the rich eat the honey,
Let the bums count their blessings, while they count the money.
The The, 'Heartland'
Perhaps Matt Johnson's lyrics on The The's Infected album have that core of universality that would make them applicable to any political period in the twenty-plus years since he penned them. The distopian vision of Britain depicted in 'Heartland' had Thatcher's third term as its backdrop and inspiration. It could just as easily apply to the 'Broken Britain' first referred to in the Blair years or to the current administration's efforts to plumb a new nadir of Orwellian gloom.
poll tax riots or anti-war demonstrations
From the same period, Johnson's anguished howl of 'Jesus Christ, JESUS CHRIST, I can't see for the tear gas, and the dollar-signs in my eyes' might have been written specifically for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Equally, if one must be objective, it may have fitted with the poll tax riots or anti-war demonstrations in the following decades.
The difference though, between political songwriting then and now, was that Johnson's lyrics had a chance of being heard. Sure there are political songwriters releasing songs now. In the web-empowered Music 2.0 landscape there are songs being written about the closure of libraries (see last week's Sly and Reggie review), the financial crisis and the Arab Spring. A common lament amongst music writers in 2011 was the seemingly apolitical nature of present-day music. An unfair criticism – the music is there, but no-one is buying it. The The's 'Heartland' charted (top 30), not because or despite its political subject matter – but because people bought it.
questions were asked in both houses
Daytime national broadcasting networks on both radio and TV were obliged to give broadcasting space to lyrics such as 'The ammunition's being passed, and the Lord's been praised/But the wars on the televisions will never be explained' simply because those were the records in the charts. If it wasn't Matt Johnson it was Billy Bragg, The Blow Monkeys, or any number of other politically eloquent songwriters making a nuisance of themselves. And it worked, questions were asked in both houses, millions of otherwise apathetic teenagers became voters and some semblance of empowerment ensued.
In the headlong spree to channel all cultural, political and social expression into uber-consumerism and cyber-identity, what's been thrown away is the huge power of collectivised cultural expression. Fragmentation into bespoke niche-genres and the proliferation and demand for unlimited free and disposable music, culture and art may have led to fans whose specific individual tastes have been better served by what's on offer, but what it has also done is made the mainstream vapid, toothless and no longer a vehicle for the expression of anything other than vanilla aspirations.
Pop music, to be popular, expresses what's on the mind of the people who buy it. Right now that would seem to be bling lifestyle, cliché hedonism and the usual boy-meets-girl stuff.
Hearing Johnson's re-voice of 'Giant' on DJ Food's The Search Engine is an ambivalent experience. NinjaTune's pre-release press hinted at a Johnson collaboration, and although it never suggested that there would be new material from the singer, it is something of a disappointment to find that it is an old number from the Infected album.
Matt Johnson's lyrical subjects always veered from the outward raging at a broken society to the intense and often picaresque internal monologues of a disturbed and painfully lucid protagonist: 'through the stench of disinfectant, infecting my head/ down the darkness of the corridor, and into a stranger's bed./ There'll be no sleep till the morning, there'll be no lullabies/ 'cause the devil's taken my clothes…just for the night'.
intoxicating blend of self-loathing and plucky anti-hero seductiveness
'Giant' is of the internal kind, but lacks that intoxicating blend of self-loathing and plucky anti-hero seductiveness that was the hallmark of Johnson's best personifications. Instead we get the sightly mawkish identity crisis of a man who 'clogged up my life with perpetual greed and turned all of my friends into enemies'. It is of course, the James Dean character from the film of the same name, whose single-minded pursuit of oil-wealth turns him into a hollow and unfulfilled old man.
It's not Johnson's best work by a long yard, but nonetheless, his flair for imagery and tone are such that the song still stands out, in late 2011, as excoriating and fresh. His voice, matured now, has a more convincing world-weariness than in 1986. Self-disgusted and sardonic – it was always easy to belive in Johnson's jaundiced persona (far more credible than the over-laboured misanthropism of Nick Cave or Trent Reznor, for example). Now, decades later, it is even more convincing.
DJ Food's treatment of the instrumentation is non-invasive – sticking pretty close to the original melody whilst beefing up the bass, dropping the original's busy glockenspiel voice and replacing with some more obviously sequenced loops and fills. It holds up well, managing that rare feat of updating a favourite without destroying it. It's testament more to the programming skills of 1980s The The than any failure on Strictly Kev's part that the DJ Food version doesn't sound significantly more contemporary than the original.
this album follows the dynamics and aesthetics of pre-dance pop/rock
Obviously, there is more to the album than that one song. Outer space, space exploration and sci-fi sound effects form a recurring theme, but what is most interesting is how much this album follows the dynamics and aesthetics of pre-dance pop/rock. For DJ Food, an outfit (if not strictly the individual who now runs the project) that pioneered a cut and paste approach to songwriting that ditched the verse-chorus-verse structure of traditional pop music and replaced it with the build-drop-breakdown approach of dance, it is cheekily (and seductively) ironic to hear straight 4/4 rock songs filling so much of the space on the album. We broke it, it suggests, now we're fixing it again.
And in The Search Engine we have a rock/pop album with more confidence in the genre than has been heard from groups of men with guitars for over a decade. Where rock bands sit around in garages trying to come up with the magic formula that will somehow distinguish them from the hordes of other guitar bands – trying to somehow splice together just the right admixture of new-wave attitude, post-punk grit and Julian Casablancas louche snarl – the very rock formula that they try so hard to update/reinvent/invigorate is being swiped from under their noses by cut 'n' paste djs.
pieces of driving dance music which build, overpower and overwhelm
DJ Food, rather than take the now well-worn path of dropping a few electronically-generated beats and b-lines under a rock vocal, builds fully-integrated, interlocked, organic pieces of driving dance music which build, overpower and overwhelm with all that sweet gut-thumping, fist-in-the-air raunch of flamegrilled Stratocasters and hotwired Marshalls.
It's intense stuff, the segue from 'Sentinel' to 'Prey' featuring a Korn-esque downtuned guitar brood and Hammer Horror vocal malevolence, before JG Thirwell's throaty machined gutteralisms take over. Four of the tracks on the album appeared on the Magpies, Maps and Moons EP, and appear unchanged here.
'Percussion Map' still owes a debt to classic breakbeat, with robotized vocals and filtered bass flitting in and out of a blend of sonics prompting vague memories of Stakker Humanoid or Voodoo Ray. The EP tracked the sort of mood swings that make up a well-constructed DJ set, the tension-release structure of dance music applied not just to the individual tracks, but also to their placement in the collection (as written in the EP review). The album also does so as a larger unit.
mood swings that make up a well-constructed DJ set
The entertaining vocal narrative of 'Discovery Workshop' still comes as a relief from the intensity of the surrounding tracks. (As a side-note, DJ Food's Strictly Kev explained in 'conversation' (via Twitter) that the speaker on the track was actually a rabid preacher giving a lecture on the dangers of popular music on susceptible youth, who went on to claim that rock and roll can kill houseplants.)
By track eleven (of twelve), the clubland provenance of the DJ Food project re-asserts itself, with a tacit nod to the tendency for dancers to lose energy eventually and need to wind down. 'A Trick of the Ear' is a tribal beats-driven innerspace zone-out track, with a few non-interruptive vocal samples and soothing Fender-Rhodes notes easing across the top of the percussion to see the album into its final track, itself a similarly mellow return to the beats and loops mileu. 'Colours Beyond Colours' would not sound out of place on Smokers Delight, or Motion, sharing the same relaxed approach to song dynamics, and letting string harmonies set a tone and the listener's own imagination fill in any narrative needed. To add further irony to the Matt Johnson situation – it is this final pair of downtempo tracks which sound dated, not the rework of a twenty-five year old song on track two. Nevertheless, after the frenetic pace and intensity of the opening nine tracks, it's a fine way to ease the album out.
On NinjaTune from 23rd January