Review Summary: The The re-brand with a filthy old man '90s makeover
How does an artist respond when they take a look around at the current musical landscape and realise that the approach they’ve taken for the last decade just won’t cut it anymore, that quite simply there's no longer an obvious market for their material? Well there are three avenues to pursue; call it quits; plough on regardless and slide down the ladder of relevance and riches; or rise to the challenge and adapt. This was the choice a 32 year old Matt Johnson faced surveying the rock landscape of 1993; the airwaves were dominated by grunge and the descriptor ‘eighties pop’ was a dirty word, releasing something along the lines of his most recent album ‘Mind Bomb’ would have been commercial suicide. That politically charged, grandiose song cycle looked downright ungainly now; Johnson needed a new approach, something stripped down and raw but also markedly different to his early ‘80s material. The answer he came to was to record a The The album that sounded more like a full band effort than ever before with a greater emphasis on the classic rock format of vocals/bass/guitar/drums.
Undoubtedly ‘Dusk’ can be marked down as a retreat in terms of some of Johnson’s usual ambitions; compared to its predecessors the lyrics aren’t nearly as political and the arrangements are generally less elaborate, though this is counterbalanced by the new artistic opportunities the fresh format affords. The traditional instrumentation allows for greater light and shade, the production feels warmer and Johnson lets the intimacy shine through in his vocals. The lyrics here are less interested in the politics of states and nations instead choosing to focus on the politics of individuals within society, uncovering the hidden drives and desires that manipulate us all. The album title ‘Dusk’ could quite easily have been replaced with ‘Lust’ for this is a work practically dripping with illicit passions and sexual loathing.
The album kicks off with Johnson’s most direct attempt at trying to distil the very essence of what he believes lies at the crux of the human condition, preaching ‘the only true freedom is freedom from the heart’s desires’. He’s convinced we are slaves to what we desire from cradle to grave and whenever we get what we want we simply turn our attention to a new set of obsessions ad infinitum. If this sounds like a bleak outlook, well it is, but Johnson sure has fun dissecting our dirty little minds for the remainder of the album's run-time.
The bluesy ‘Dogs of Lust’ successfully translates the overpowering nature of lust with many of the lines trailing off with a filthy drawl, ‘This is the Night’ is the sleaziest saloon piano ballad you could imagine peppered with brazenly horn dog recollections like ‘how many whores have walked through that door?’ and ‘Helpline Operator’ leers over London staring and pointing at the massed ranks of sexually unfulfilled drones all the while urging them to put their ‘tongue into the mouthpiece and whisper in my ear’. The final third of the album is far quieter, almost ambient at times, but the theme remains the same with the muted brass textures and breathy vocals of ‘Lung Shadows’ failing to adequately drown out the pornographic samples lurking low in the mix, whilst ‘Bluer Than Midnight’ lives up to its title and plays out like a seedier version of a typical George Michael torch song.
If lustful debauchery and blue reflections were all ‘Dusk’ had to offer then for sure that would have made for a perfectly acceptable if one-toned work, pleasingly there is a little more to the album than this and in particular the album’s two lead singles are arguably it’s crowning achievements. The acoustic led ‘Love is Stronger than Death’ is paired down and almost elemental in its beauty, the vocals cracking with emotion as Johnson reflects on love’s ability to flourish in the shadow of mortality. ‘Slow Emotion Replay’ is possibly the band’s most famous song and is home to some fine Johnny Marr harmonica playing and universal every-man lyrics like ‘don’t ask me ‘bout war, religion or God, love, sex or death’, a sentiment that’s laudable but come now Matt when has that ever stopped you?
The album calls time with Johnson opening his arms to the world again on ‘Lonely Planet’, the ‘planet Earth is slowing down’ refrain matched by a similarly slow-motion arrangement, as finally we are offered some resolution to all the preceding restlessness with the hard won admittance that ‘the world’s too big, and life’s too short, to be alone’. The song feels like a farewell and so it would prove as The The only resurfaced one more time in 1999 with the decidedly low key release of the swan song album ‘Naked Self’, for all intents and purposes ‘Dusk’ served as the last time Johnson would have a mainstream audience to address. Although it’s hard to build an argument that he bowed out of the limelight with his most ambitious work it's satisfying that he left the stage on such a heartfelt note.