I'm just a symptom of the moral decay that's gnawing at the heart of the country
Soul Mining (1983) ***1/2
The genre of singer-songwriter synth-pop isn't all that unheard of, but it is rare enough render Matt Johnson's oeuvre uneasy to pigeonhole. Classic early '80s synth-pop tended towards hi-energy, bite-size tight, danceable. instantly catchy pop tuneage. This album (bar the melodic pop tendencies) meets none of those adjectives. With the average song length hovering around the six minute mark, as you'd expect these tunes meander a bit too long, taking their own sweet loping time: Jools Holland's cocktail jazz piano solo closing out "Uncertain Smile," is one thing; the Afrobeat chanting coda to "Giant," that extends the song to a perilous 9 1/2 minutes (feels like 9 1/2 weeks minus the sexiness of Rourke & Basinger), is another matter altogether. The songs aren't, for the most part, immediately accessible either; but as often the case, the hooks reveal themselves over time, and instrumentation is maximalist enough that there are more than enough layers to peel back on each fresh listen (I never noticed the burbling bass line in "The Sinking Feeling," until just this minute while listening/typing this). The song lengths did initially put me completely off this album, however, as the opening six-minute track is bleeding awful (and repeated listens have not made it any easier on my ears). So I'll pretend this album actually begins with the second track, "This is the Day," a sunny slice of pop optimism that belies most of the rest of the album by being, firstly, immediately catchy and soaring enough to work as the obvious potential pop single of the record, and secondly, unforced in its positivism. The rest of the album charts considerably darker currents (excepting "Uncertain Smile," and the closer, "Perfect," that was obviously put there to counterbalance the preceding darkness and not end proceedings on a bummer).
"Death is not the answer / For your soul may burn in hell," - Johnson's lyrics are clearly the dominant attraction (there are other musicians guesting, but Matt is for all intents The The), unusual for synth-pop. In fact, synth-pop is too limited a pigeonhole, musically speaking: while there are indeed synthesizers and drum machines on every track, Johnson is also constantly throwing an eclectic variety of instrumentation into the kettle for his maximalist gumbo - Cajun accordions, xylophone vibes, jazzy piano, kettle drums, etc. Which paradoxically gives this album at one time a timeless and dated air - the synth-pop elements and thwacking drum sound ensure that no one will mistake this for anything other than early '80s dance-pop album. The other major obstacle for most listeners is, as often is the case with many bands, the singer's voice: it's rather affected in an unpleasant way (and no, Johnson's vox has definitely not grown on me over time, either). His lyrical preoccupations have, however, and as the album title evokes, this is some deep mining of Matt Johnson's soul: religious guilt and torment ("I'm afraid of God / I'm afraid of hell") giving added weight to the typical singer-songwriter concerns of failing relationships ("The Twilight Hour," presents a vividly twisted case of a man afraid to leave his girlfriend because he's given up all of his friends for her, and now she's his only hold on normal social relations) and sour snipings at a failing society ("The Sinking Feeling"). Upbeat as some of the music may be, Johnson's dour baritone and even more dour lyrical outlook easily pigeonhole this into the troubled troubadour vein. A little more song to song consistency and less '80s might have made this a neo-classic of the genre. Or as Johnson himself puts it in the brooding title track, "Something always goes wrong when things are going right."