The The


The The

As the founder and lone official member of The The, Matt Johnson was pouring angst-ridden lyrics over electronic beats when Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan were still gumming their pacifiers. While most people will remember The The for the deceptively cheery "This Is the Day" (from 1983's Soul Mining), Johnson's main contribution to modern rock has been to pen some of the weightiest lyrics of the genre. Few songwriters have matched his ability to perfectly articulate universal feelings of regret, personal doubt, and hope.

NakedSelf is Johnson's seventh release and first for Reznor's Nothing Records. (The The's final effort for Sony Music, the never-released Gun Sluts, is so disturbing that Johnson had to shelve it.) While NakedSelf contains glimmers of optimism, it's considerably darker than its predecessor, 1993's Dusk. In fact, in many ways Johnson's newest offering sounds like a millennial update of his harrowing 1981 debut, Burning Blue Soul. The opening "Boiling Point" is a frightening exploration of subway-induced paranoia. Beginning with martial drumming and a lone siren, it expands into atonal guitar feedback, programmed beats, and finally a foreboding, wah-wah-damaged guitar riff that's classic Johnson. By the time his patented super-compressed vocals enter the fray, there's some serious fear and loathing going on. "They piss 'n' moan and push 'n' shove/ So below as it is above," seethes Johnson, likening a cramped tube car to the world at large.

Things brighten considerably -- at least musically -- on "ShrunkenMan," "TheWhisperers," and "SoulCatcher," the latter containing an archetypal Johnson lyric: "I can't say it, because I can barely face it," he confides over light acoustic strumming. "My life is halfway through and I still haven't done what I'm here to do." Later in the song he concludes "the only thing worth having is happiness." That's ironic, because for Johnson happiness is clearly considered unattainable; the best one can hope for is to catch a glimpse of it amid life's struggle.

No The The record would be complete without stabs at capitalist greed ("SwineFever," "GlobalEyes"), doomed relationships ("DecemberSunlight," "Weather Belle"), and personal devastation (the comical but annoying "Voidy Numbness"). While most succeed, there are duds here, including the inexplicable grunge slumming of "SaltWater," and "DieselBreeze," which seems more like a sketch than a song. Throughout it all, though, Johnson employs musical motifs and sounds that stretch back through two decades of his work. Delayed guitar, eerie effects loops, distorted vocals, and a signature approach to composition are all recurring devices. NakedSelf is the sound of a man confronting universal demons, including fear of failure, complicated love, and an increasingly malevolent world. While Johnson offers few solutions, his ability to articulate our fears is a welcome comfort.

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