When it came to rock ‘n’ roll and aging, Pete Townsend of the Who probably said it best: Hope I die before I grow old. (He didn’t, but that’s another story.) Back in the 1960s, Townsend must have known how quickly rock and rollers would age, always producing a new album, always going on that final tour. If you need proof that rock stars should quit early, listen to the latest release by The The entitled Naked Self (Nothing).
For those who don’t know The The, and unless you listened to the alternative music of the early 1980s you wouldn’t – The The was a critically acclaimed British cult band. The group resembled The Cure, having one fixed member. In The The’s case, it is Matt Johnson. The The came out with several albums in the 1980s filled with the new wave synth-pop sound of the time.
Now, after several years of rest and a switch to Nothing Record, the record label of Nine Inch Nails, Johnson released Naked Self, an album many have compared to the work of Trent Reznor. The similarities between the two singers come during Nine Inch Nails’ weaker moments, which too often sound like bland sludge oozing through your speakers. All of Naked Self sounds that way.
The album opens with Boiling Point, one of the only good songs on the album. The darkness and menace Johnson tries to create on this album, even down to the black cover with one light bulb shining faintly on it, comes off in this song. Odd sounds fly out of the stereo – whooshes, guitar feedback, all tied down by a steady backbeat. It’s like walking down a shadowy street late at night. And Johnson’s insistent, whispered vocals only add to the atmosphere.
After Boiling Point the rest of the album falls down like a house of cards. The menace of Boiling Point becomes standard heavy-metal doom and gloom on songs such as Shrunken Man and Swine Fever. There are attempts at Velvet Underground-lite on the New York sounding The Whisperers. And if all the heavy guitars and drums aren’t for you, then there’s the bad bar band acoustics of Soul Catcher.
While most of the music on the album suffers from being bland and out-of-date, the nail in the coffin is Johnson himself. Many critics hail him a genius, but after Naked Self you have no idea why. If he is such a genius, he would find someone else to front his band because Johnson has one of the worst voices for the music he wants to make. It’s hard to come off angry and evil, if you sound like Barry Gibb of the BeeGees. While listening to these songs, Staying Alive comes through and destroys the mood quickly. When he’s not sounding like Gibb, Johnson puts too much inflection and tics in his voice, giving it a hammy-opera feel. It’s about as scary as watching VH1’s Behind the Music on Ozzy Osbourne.
It’s easy to understand not wanting to give up your place in the spotlight when you have passed your prime. But if Johnson wanted to keep The The in the game, then he would have done a better job to build on what made people like the band in the first place instead of going for a badly planned shift. Working with Nothing Records, Johnson should have known that this kind of music had already been taken up by a new guard. And there isn’t any place for Johnson and The The there.