Review Summary: I’m tired AKA “…don’t criticise what you don’t understand.”
It was not long ago that Matt Johnson announced something grandiose. The The, the legendary Post-Punk project is coming back with a triple-album, a documentary titled The Inertia Variations
and a first tour in 16 years. I don’t think biologists of the world are actually able to properly define the mechanisms at work in how quick and massive the erection I received was, once the news hit. You see, The The is not just another band out there, it was a go-to band of a youthful, angsty, teenage moi. Everyone has one of those, a band you can’t quite clearly describe as your all-time favourite, but find yourself constantly going back to, when the mood doesn’t fit anything else. And as the years go by, you start noticing your gradually growing addiction to the music and eventually you’ll have to admit that you do indeed dote on their work more than you were in the hayday. I adored their music; I worshipped the striking complexity of the trivial structures Matt Johnson and his constantly changing team of overly enthusiastic, callous madmen kept on giving. I excused their missteps and praised the successes. I remembered them fondly, wrapped in the warm coat of nostalgia. And I felt hollow inside, when they announced their end.
But the news of their return naturally raised some questions: What made Matt Johnson reassemble the band? What new material will we get? Are they back because of ideas brewing inside for so long they can’t contain them anymore and need to have them shared with the rest of the world? Is their comeback too late for people to care? And is it a comeback at all? Simply put, why is The The back?
So what is it then? Here comes the moment of truth.
Okay, full disclosure; this isn’t exactly a musical album per se, or at least not fully. Its first part, The End of the Day, is. The second part, The Inertia Variations, you might notice is titled the same way as the upcoming documentary about the project. That is due to the fact that the entire album is actually a collection of quick thoughts, quotes and ruminations Matt Johnson recorded for it. The album three is then the documentary’s half ambient, half electronic soundtrack with a horde of monologue-like insertions from a lot of different people saying a vast array of things, all reaching their own unique levels of pretentiousness. And that’s all you’ll get.
Volume 4: The End of the Day
I suppose it only right to start talking about the first album, affectionately named Volume 4
, for it being the first in the trilogy and also the only one containing actual music just seems to make it the starting point right. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this album sounds nothing like The The’s past material, except for the purposefully overlooked Hanky Panky. But even then, the two albums share only the acoustic component. Otherwise, they are vastly different.
The End of the Day is a calm, near-meditative album about all the life’s wisdom and struggles. It was recorded entirely live on the titular Radio Cineola, where Matt Johnson homes his podcast. It has an inherently pleasant instrumental palette consisting mainly of acoustic guitars, soft drumming and occasional trumpets on the background. But the most impressive feature of the whole project is the sheer amount of musical contributors. Every single song is pretty much Matt Johnson’s ideas-ridden head clashing with someone else’s, never reappearing again on the entire album. The songs do gain a certain amount of uniqueness from that, while still maintaining some uniting aesthetic. New vocalist, new vibe, new theme, new tempo and influences, on each track. That is a staggering accomplishment to say the least. And had the execution reached the par, I could have forgiven the fact that it is absolutely different from anything The The have ever done. I suppose it was silly of me to expect Matt Johnson to simply go back to the exact same style he has always been involved with. At this point of his life, as the documentary explores further, he is merely a man with an incredible musical talent, making new material he feels like creating at that particular moment of his life.
So for as fine and perfectly passable as the music is what really brings it down are for the most part the aforementioned features. There are the perfectly on point ones, like the soulful, touching “This is the Day” with Thomas Feiner; the powerful, despite its gentle approach “Weatherbelle” with Thomas Leer; or the engulfing and enigmatic beauty that is “Phantom Walls” with Gillian Glover singing in Spanish (I presume); even the only previously released single with no features, “We Can’t Stop What’s Coming”, is a tuneful little endeavour. However, the album is filled with one too many unremarkable and barely engaging cuts that hide mostly on the second half of the record. Among those are the likes of “Bluer Than Midnight” with Charlotte Etc., on which you’ll find the most tired instrumentation and vocals on the entire album, or “Love is Stronger Than Death” that in in itself is not a bad track, but simply lacks a certain punch to it, which leaves it sounding like a run-of-the-mill in-the-country radio station one-night hit. Then, songs like “Gravitate to Me”, featuring the Elysian Fields, while decent enough instrumentally, have by far the most atrocious vocals I had the displeasure of enduring upon this year. They are like a breathy void of quality that obscure even the fairly interesting subdued, semi-electronic music and the intriguing hook they are set to.
All-in-all, The End of the Day is a perfectly acceptable album. It would not be reasonable to ask of Matt Johnson the music in style of old The The, so the least he could do with the newness is deliver a solid enough album, which I believe he did, even though it has its downsides.
Volume 5: The Inertia Variations
It doesn’t feel right criticising a record that is purposefully musicless. It is over 70 tracks of simple, linear, quick ideas, pseudo-philosophical musings and answers to everyday questions Matt has to deal with, be it “What do you do with your life now?” or “What plans do you have for the day?”. The purely spoken word passages are all set to either drone-y, chilling ambiance or sounds of lively infrastructure and the world around, from church bell to cars on the road or even creeping wind. Occasionally, the constant ruminations are interrupted by a quick, mostly ambient interlude that each only serve as transition points between the monologues.
And that is how all 71 cuts run by. Really, your enjoyment of this record is only limited by your enjoyment of Matt Johnson’s voice and vaguely profound, overly convoluted descriptions of nothing in particular, bordering with snobbishness. There isn’t much to critique, there isn’t much to discuss, beside the presented ideas themselves. But it takes a particular kind of patience to sit through a full album of someone’s ramblings about this and that. Again, it doesn’t feel right complaining about it, considering the fact that it is nothing more than a sort of a highlight reel of Matt’s podcast. But there is nothing more to it either, especially with how many of the presented thoughts are actually somewhat too self-indulgent and unwillingly silly in how much they are trying to sound heartfelt.
Still, in the end it’s not like Matt was going at it helter skelter without any actual plan, because each soundscape leans into another, which prompts a new thought, which corresponds with a new sound detail on the background, which all together eventually leads to the final track perfectly encapsulating what is to come on the third record in the trilogy. The closing cut, “Point Hope –Full”, is a quick and pleasant trip around a gentle guitar with the now familiar sound layers behind it. It also coincides stylistically with what the entirety of disc three is about. Speaking of which…
Volume 6: Midday to Midnight
Right there in the title, there is a dispute brewing. See, it isn’t exactly clear what this final disc is called. Its cover (as well as the cover of the whole trilogy) refers to it as Midnight to Midnight
, but a lot of the promotional material and even The The’s official website calls it Midday to Midnight
. What kind of diabolical mind games does Matt Johnson play here one can only assume.
I suppose this is a soundtrack to the documentary. It sure sounds like one. I honestly can’t find an explanation for what this might be if not a background music of the film about The The’s present days. A collection of mostly minute long ambient sketches with occasional monologue inserts from all sorts of random thinkers; that is what this disc is about.
Now, as a whole it isn’t bad. There is a clear aesthetical direction and some of the more melodic moments definitely enthral. However, it also suffers the same problem the second disc partially did. It is too long and too inconsistent. The songs often feature just a brooding, humming hearth of tiring sound. In the middle of it all, the individual speeches given by various speakers in the inserts between the said tiring sounds are just like the second disc many times too meaningless and abundantly redundant. They are mostly obvious cut-outs of larger speeches, each focusing on some socially-political issue.
So this disc really has one issue. It’s too much of nothing on too long a runtime. Occasional rays of goodness shine through, but they are frantically scattered around and more often than not so strangely and unpleasantly mixed and produced that one has to wonder, whether they were recorded from another room or with the mic in a bucket, in order to achieve that particular muddy sound.
In the end, a logical assumption appears. For this album is so strange, so unbalanced, so dreadfully long-winded and failing to clearly establish one specific theme or idea it would be based around time and time again that one would assume it can’t be an actual album, made with purpose of being an album. It has to be a soundtrack to simultaneously released documentary film. And as such, it needs its visual companion desperately; otherwise it falls apart and becomes unlistenable.
Boy oh boy, what a mess. I shouldn’t criticise this. There is no reason to. If anything, I should focus on the first disc only, for that is the only one made to be listened to for musical experience. But if it comes as a package, it gets dealt with as a package. I had feared that this wouldn’t be like anything I could fathom to expect. I had hoped that it at least would be worthy enough of a listen. The first disc flops in its mildness, eventually becoming just listenable enough, never to fully reach a level of quality high enough to make the experience outstanding. The second disc is a mere reflection of Matt Johnson’s inner world with no purpose other than for him to marble at his own eloquence of turning “making breakfast” into an essay about life’s meaningless beauty. And finally the third disc that is nothing more than an array of obtuse ambient-ish invariables with obscure, torn out of the context drivels. And that is Radio Cineola for you.
Have a nice day and go listen to Matt Johnson’s podcast, you’ll get much more out of it.