By: Robert H.
Matt Johnson has been making albums under the moniker "The The" for over twenty years, but as Naked Self proves, he is not, and will never be, an obsolete voice in the music world. He continually weans himself from genres in which he has flourished and reinvents his sound to show just how far his songwriting and performing abilities can stretch. For this incarnation Johnson wears a hat not unlike that of the early Trent Reznor (with whom he is reported to be working on a new project), using heavy, synthetic beats and razorlike electric guitars that slash through the, otherwise, stable soundscape. Predictably, this complements Johnson's tenor voice (his most versatile and impressive instrument) as well if not better than the bluesy sound of Dusk or the synth-heavy sound of Soul Mining.
Despite the dissonant tendencies of some of the guitar work, there is hardly anything cacophonous about Naked Self (excepting, perhaps, "Diesel Breeze", but no one will complain about that, I predict.) The music is vibrant but held in check by a crisp and resonant acoustic guitar backdrop played by the seemingly ever-present Eric Schermerhorn (who co-wrote half of the songs on the album). The surprising result is that the album, upon reflection, bears more similarities to Dusk than almost anything else in The The's oeuvre.
Even the high points of Naked Self fail to reach the sublimity of the 1993 album, though. At times the lyrics are questionable, reminding one of the rather stretched bleak poeticism of some of David Bowie's later efforts. For example, Johnson relies too much on easy "-ise/-ize" rhyme schemes. It would be surprising, however, if many Dusk fans were disappointed with Naked Self. Think of it as blues shot through with lightning. (Listeners who lamented "Hanky Panky", the 1995 tribute to Hank Williams, can relax: that somewhat indulgent homage is behind us.)
Regardless of one's opinion of the album as a whole, there are songs on Naked Self that characterize essential The The listening. Foremost on the list is "Weather Belle", which features the brilliant addition of an hauntingly plucked banjo to the, otherwise, wholly electric mix (as well as some of Johnson's best lyrics to date). "Phantom Walls" is a perfect synopsis of Johnson's dark-but-hopeful vision, and it displays his melodic intuitions as brilliantly as anything he has ever written. On the heavier side of things, "Salt Water" rocks, plain and simple, and shows a punk conviction we rarely see from Johnson.
Incredibly, this year looks like it's going to bear two more releases from The The (perhaps a singles compilation?), and Naked Self can only raise expectations for the future. It is a perfect 'stormy day' of an album, replete with violent thunder and reflective lulls. It might not please fans stuck on Johnson's 1980's sound, but anyone else should be pretty damn satisfied.