Matt Johnson
Burning Blue Soul

Released on 4AD
Reviewed by morfe, 25/01/2002ce

'Why are you forever under the weather when you're at an age where you should be feeling good' (Track 8-Delirious)

-So goes the pained and bedsit-bashed refrain, also scrawled in Johnson's tiny and self-conscious handwriting on the inner sleeve. It is 1981, and the pop-world is punking, ska-ing, and mod-ing aplenty, with mighty inroads about to be made by the new stadium acts that came to typify mid-eighties vain-glorious no-idealism. Quite how many single-occupant rooms and flats reverberated to the distorted echo- chambered strains of Burning Blue Soul, I don't know, as I was still a schoolboy. However, by the time I had inexorably graduated to bedsit land myself, nurturing dreams of becoming a rock star, BBS discovered me. I am convinced that this album gravitates itself toward those of a poetic and lachrymose disposition, fixed itself to my head by the power of consanguinity, and arguably kept me filling up empty coffee mugs with fag ash,apple cores, and sterile hopes, for far longer than is good for anyone.

It is not easy to dismiss BBS, even in the light of Matt Johnson's more recent and less pure works as The The. Here, the confessional overtones of Johnson crawled out on to the scene, too catchy to be Joy Division, yet too intelligent to bother sparring with most 'pop' acts of the time. One of the most outstanding things that strikes me now is that this work is so, SO, un-American. Constantly fluttering between twilight worlds that could be London's East End, or the hot, sticky streets of Delhi or Marrakech. Indeed a strange world for a young English boy. In fact, this album, generically, is nigh on impossible to pin down firmly, no doubt to the critic's chagrin at the time. The opening instrumental, Red Cinders in the Sand, (remember dance music as we know it was unheard of!) from it's inception steams onto the deck with a chugging and hot rythmic pulse, broken up with strange percussive industrionics, finally breaking into a pre-Orb groove and finally working up to a Tibetan Buddhist type horn that roars discordantly out over a now very bleak soundscape. Strangeness afoot! Next, 'Song without an Ending is less inspiring', and trammels along without doing much at all. The lyrics, on the other hand, are as 'uncooked' as Johson proclaims during the song. By that I mean RAW, not underdone! '10,000 people burned today, I felt a pang of concern'
This is post-teenage angst, the beginning of a journey that we have all made as thinkers and lovers. The theme of BBS rarely, if at all, deviates from this precept, it drips with despair and procrastination. But for all it's weak musical moments, there are some chords struck, and I mean literally, that resonate profoundly with anyone who has loved, lost, been unemployed, wanted to be a star but smoked and drank instead.

Johnson's guitar is technically unaccomplished throughout, yet this tentative strumming only heightens the avant-garde mystique of his journey. Matt Johnson, at the time, often took blatant cues from John Lennon, an obvious influence, especially 'Bugle Boy' (track 7). However, where Lennon would vibe us up with revolution, Johnson proclaims; 'I did know the secret of the universe, only I forgot!'

Taken as a whole, Burning Blue Soul is one of the most experimental popular records of the last two decades, and you will hear guitar sounds like never before. Stretched and tortured notes, looped over and over until they assume the status of a mini-mantra. And that is the key, Johnson's depression at the time, along with his ongoing struggle with religion, became just that, a mantra. The minor chords drift and echo over often beautiful rythms and backdrops of hot and slow-dripping guitar. Always present is a tone of unease, it disappeared mostly after Soul Mining was released as the first The The title. Soul Mining was definitely a hit with the public, yet BBS was it's poetic and nervous teenage father. For anyone that is a poet, loves poetry, and doesn't mind dipping into their navel-gazeing youth once more, the closing song 'Another Boy Drowning' is an epic theme, putting me strangely in mind of 'Laughing Boy' by Julian Cope.

Johnson confesses; 'I wanted to be like Bob Dylan until I discovered Moses'. This, followed by 'When it HIT me like a thunderbolt.....I don't know nothing, and I'm scared that I never will..' is a wonderful and profound realisation, captured beautifully. Gargantuan sentiments indeed, and refreshingly honest. All the so-called Goth and Grunge bands to come would have a terrible time trying to capture (and failing) that real fear and introspection. 'Another Boy Drowning' fades out in a sky-dazzling, brain-searing surge, like the sea crashing in on your fragile senses, he has really hit something, and, like those cheese biscuits, a terrible metaphor as there's no cheese for sale here (discounting this metaphor!), you simply have to have another go. One more is never enough.

Notable contributions on tracks 3 and 9 from Wire's Gilbert/Lewis.

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