Exhibiting a near-pyromaniacal obsession with images of hell and burning, The The’s Matt Johnson seemed to make music from inside the flames of his own private purgatory.

The video to the title track of The The’s 1986 album Infected saw Johnson growling the song while strapped to a gurney like Hannibal Lecter, only to be torched alive by a mob of Bolivian peasants.  Meanwhile the single’s limited edition ‘torture’ sleeve pictured the singer stripped to the waist in a hotel room, neck veins bulging, seemingly in the throes of some psychic meltdown, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.  Then aged 14, I’d just been scared witless by Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and for a time in my schoolboy mind, Johnson became virtually interchangeable with Sean Chapman’s character – a gleaming torso-ed Faust about to unleash Hades from a box.

Infected brought The The modest chart success, and having recruited ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, they crept further into mainstream consciousness with 1989 ‘s Mind Bomb, which proved prescient in its concern with Middle Eastern politics and religious fundamentalism (both East and West).  But it’s The The’s 1983 debut, Soul Mining here remastered in a lavish 30th anniversary edition replete with bonus tracks and remixes – that is the band’s enduring achievement.

The+The+-+Infected+-+Torture+Sleeve+++Poster+-+LP+RECORD-138471While his earlier solo effort, Burning Blue Soul (1981) had been mired in lo-fi murk, for Soul Mining Johnson ditched the demo tape aesthetic in favour of a lush, multi-instrumental canvas, roping in collaborators including Jools Holland, Orange Juice drummer Zeke Manyika, electronic DIY pioneer Thomas Leer and J.G. Thirlwell, aka Foetus.

The result was a fearlessly idiosyncratic tour-de-force that threw melancholy synth-pop together with elements of industrial and African music (the now-iconic cover art even featured one of Fela Kuti’s wives as painted by Johnson’s brother, Andy). Employing xylophones, harmonica, fiddles and accordions alongside the samples and keyboards, it’s a perfectly balanced marriage of the organic and the synthetic.

But behind the new production values, Johnson’s soul was still burning; Soul Mining is the confessional journal of a coruscatingly intense creative personality, its brutal self-dissection offset by intoxicating polyrythms and beguiling melodic pop.

Soul Mining  takes off like a rocket. On opening track “I’ve been waiting for tommorrow (all of my life)”, a sampled voice intones a countdown over a martial drumbeat punctuated by sirens and rushing warheads. When Johnson’s vocal kicks in, it’s the voice of a manic paranoiac in the eye of a hurricane:  “I’ve been filled with useless information / Spewed out by papers and radio stations,” he splutters. With its panic-button urgency, the track could almost serve as a New Wave prototype for the shock-and-awe assaults Hank Shocklee’s Bomb Squad would unleash five years later on Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions.

By contrast, “This Is The Day” is like plunging into cool spring water. A lilting ballad buoyed along by breezy accordion and bursts of sunshine synth, it’s a rueful reflection on dashed hopes and wasted chances – barely out of his teens, Johnson sounds like a man waist-deep in midlife regret: “You could have done anything if you’d wanted”, he croons in his breathy baritone. “This is the day your life will surely change,” goes the chorus, with the forced optimism of the desperate.

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Desperation was something of a running theme in the recession-scarred Britain of 1983, and though Soul Mining eschews the explicit politics of The The’s later work, its grooves are soaked with a pervasive sense of dystopia.  Bonus track “Perfect” even includes a reference to The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, while the chorus of “The Sinking Feeling” yokes Johnson’s parlous mental state to the state of the nation:  “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s knawing at the heart of the country,” he sings with jaunty irony over a bubbling bassline.

“Uncertain Smile” is the album’s centrepiece, a glowing New Wave take on blues and country with a chorus borrowed from Cole Porter:  “I’ve got you under my skin where the rain can’t get in.”  For the coda, Jules Holland launches into a sublime piano solo of epic proportions. Unfolding with a smoky majesty, it’s Soul Mining’s crowning, redemptive moment.

The other standout is “Giant” – a 10-minute electro-funk colossus that sits astride a monster bass hook and culminates in a euphoric tribal drumming sequence courtesy of Zeke Manyika. Johnson, an early adopter of Ecstasy, has described Soul Mining as “the first Ecstasy album”, and “Giant” sounds like the blueprint for a new species of avant-garde dance music.  But this is Matt Johnson’s dancefloor, and behind the titanic groove, the lyric is typically Faustian: “I’m scared of God and scared of hell,” Johnson howls, “And I’m caving in upon myself.” Released the same year as New Order’s “Blue Monday”, “Giant” sees Matt Johnson dancing in his very own disco inferno.

“Giant” was intended as the closer, but Epic tacked on “Perfect”  as a bonus track, much to Johnson’s annoyance. This re-release restores the original tracklisting, relegating “Perfect” to the bonus discs.  It’s a dreamy pop comedown which, despite Johnson’s misgivings, was in fact the perfect last word for a record that strikes such a bittersweet balance between light and shade.

The The never quite recaptured the glories of Soul Mining. From Infected onwards the band’s music slid increasingly toward chest-beating bombast, as Johnson set out to (in his own words) “dissect the symptoms and causes of the decline of the Western empire”.  But as he railed against US imperialism and the ills of globalisation, The The’s music had lost something. It would never again sound so fresh, so nuanced and so human.

Soul Mining 30th Anniversary Edition is released by Sony on 30 June.

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