Uncertain Smile

The The's Matt Johnson is back with a new record, a new label and something close to optimism

This all may sound like the whining of a spoiled rock star, but such complaints are becoming more common as the promotional arms of record companies are being twisted by turnover and instability, leaving below-the-radar figures like Johnson suffering the most. Like many other artists, Johnson is being forced to find his own solution for maintaining a bankable career. Returning to the path that brought him notice in the first place, he's decided to form his own imprint, Lazarus Records, which will allow him to release most of the material Sony balked at, as well as the huge backlog of other The The tracks that have sat quietly in the can for years.

Despite the setbacks and difficulties that precipitated its release, Naked Self finds Johnson in top form. A companion to Dusk, the mood-driven album continues the exploration of enlightenment through equal parts suffering and distorted guitars. A spare emotional trip helmed by Johnson's ghostly vocals and Shermerhorn's temperamental fretwork, Self is at its best when working the introspective and quiet angles.

The album opens with the call of a distant siren on "Boiling Point," a sound that rises with and fades into a caterwauling guitar as Johnson plays conductor. It's a perfect The The piece, and most of the tracks that follow complement the opening salvo.

The The's Matt Johnson: Still brooding, kind of, after all these years.
The The's Matt Johnson: Still brooding, kind of, after all these years.

"Soul Catcher," containing the lyric, "So what will I regret the most?/The things I do or the things I don't," is Johnson's idea of a lullaby for his newborn son. Only the dissonant "Voidy Numbness" seems out of place on this record, sounding like a castoff from the Mind Bomb sessions. The album ends with "Salt Water," a perfect bookend to "Boiling Point." The song drops us alone on a cold beach, the mournful sound of seagulls crying above the crash of sinister waves. Apart from the natural sound effects, Naked Self gives a nod to Johnny Marr's stellar Dusk-era licks. While not quite derivative, it's clear Johnson studied his former bandmate well.

Overall, it's perhaps the most optimistic The The album since Soul Mining: one that finds Johnson allowing some light into the windows of his grayscale portraits. Even the photo of Johnson in the liner notes shows him with his lips creeping toward a smile. Perhaps most telling of his newly discovered silver lining is something found in the album's dedication. What surely would have been taken as a joke in the past, it simply reads: "To Mum."

To properly capture Naked Self's sound on the road, Johnson is playing with the same band that conspired to make the record. A seasoned group of music pros, the combo features Schermerhorn, a veteran of Iggy Pop's touring outfit; country vet Spencer Campbell on bass; and Earl Harvin, onetime drummer for MC 900 Ft. Jesus.

"I really took my time putting together this band," says Johnson. "The last band looked good on paper, but it just never worked. This time it's working very, very well, probably the most powerful group I've ever toured with." Johnson clearly appreciates what the lineup has done for his own instrumental proficiency. He explains, almost summoning a comedian's rimshot: "As a musician I consider myself a songwriter."

The The is scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 21, at the Nile Theater in Mesa, with special guests. Showtime is 7: 30 p.m.

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