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Uncertain Smile

"It was direct. There was no bullshit, no obscurity. It was like, 'This is it, this is what I feel.' It punched you straight in the heart." Matt Johnson is talking about John Lennon's lyrical prowess, but he could well be speaking about his own approach to songwriting. Calling from Chicago during a break in his current U.S. tour, Johnson is eager to offer his opinions about the record industry, as well discuss the state of his group The The, and its first release in almost seven years, Naked Self.

On this day, Johnson isn't angry or depressed. He isn't even sarcastic or spiteful. In fact, from this conversation, it wouldn't be a stretch to say he's quite a likeable, even warm sort of fellow. Not at all like the guy in the publicity photo, and certainly not the one whose songs investigate life's seedy underbelly. Used to the idea that people think he must be exceedingly lugubrious, Johnson explains, "A lot of people find it hard to believe, but it's like the comedian that in reality is a manic depressive. I'm the reverse."

While he may be above common unhappiness in real life, his work has never been timid in delving into the darkest depths of the human condition. From his first release, Burning Blue Soul, as Matt Johnson in 1981, to Naked Self, the seventh full-length The The offering, Johnson's muse has focused on the unfocused, exposing the lives of invisible strangers living in a half-empty world.

Johnson began his musical career in England as a teen, peddling his wares at shows around London. "I made a record at about 15 years old. I started working for a recording studio then, and I copied out some cassettes. I did it after work without them knowing. I would go around to all these gigs, you know, Cabaret Voltaire and the like, and I would sell the tapes."

Johnson's early work caught the ear of English avant-garde indie label 4AD, which released Burning Blue Soul when Johnson was barely 20. A black hole of swirling percussion, Burning found Johnson writing, recording and playing all the instruments. While hindsight reveals some of the album's flaws, it remains an impressive melding of primitive sampling technology, layered effects, heavy guitar and Johnson's unmistakable death-rattle whisper of a voice.

On the strength of his solo debut, Johnson was signed to Sony U.K. in 1983. With Johnson its heart and one consistent member, The The produced some of the more eclectic and literate music of the last two decades. The The's catalogue boasts such disparate offerings as 1983's Soul Mining, a quintessential example of '80s electronica, to 1995's Hanky Panky, an all-Hank Williams cover album.

His collaborators over the years have included Sinéad O'Connor, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole and Johnny Marr of the Smiths. Marr worked regularly with Johnson over a six-year period in the late '80s and early '90s , resulting in two full-length albums, Mind Bomb and the arresting Dusk. The Johnson/Marr collaboration also spawned a feature-length video and numerous EPs. The partnership dissolved when Marr declined to tour behind Dusk, preferring to focus on his young family.

While the setback could partially explain why it took so long to produce another record of new material, there was plenty of drama going on behind the scenes: Johnson's move from London to New York, exasperating difficulty in finding good backing players for the next project and a souring of relations with his longtime label.

"While in New York, my guitarist Eric Schermerhorn and I decided to start work on an album called Gun Sluts. We made this really unstructured, aggressive recording, a really great album. Sony sent some people over there to listen to it and they were horrified. They were like, 'Either change this or we can't use it.' So I shelved the album and started work on Naked Self. When it was finished, coincidentally, my contract with Sony was finally up after 17 years," continues Johnson. "I played them Naked Self, and they didn't like that, either. They asked me if I could make it more commercial, and I was outraged. I said, 'Forget it.'"

A year of legal wrangling followed before Johnson was freed from his Sony deal and was able to sign with Nothing Records, an imprint of Interscope. But the red tape didn't end there. All seemed well with Nothing/Interscope until the massive Seagram's buyout, which swallowed Interscope and a dozen other labels and left thousands fired in the wake of massive corporate restructuring. All the merger madness has Johnson wondering if he made a hasty jump.

He crystallizes his current label woes with a story from a tour stop in the Motor City. "In Detroit I got a call from an NPR station. They said they'd been begging the label for copies of the album and they wouldn't give them one. NPR had to beg and phone and beg, and eventually got one. Then the NPR affiliate had to send someone to drive 40 minutes to pick me up and take me to the station to do the interview because the record label wouldn't do it. I've never known anything like it," says an exasperated Johnson.

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.

"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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Jonathan Bond