“I’ve always made albums for people to listen to alone in their bedrooms”, confesses Matt Johnson towards the end of the show, looking out into a room that has spent the night absorbing his music in all it’s cracked emotional dexterity. The comment is meant to help explain why he and the rotating core of players who’ve made up The The for almost forty years have been such an infrequent live proposition. But it speaks much more to the politics, both global and personal that made his collective masterpieces – 1983’s Soul Mining, it’s successor Infected and the last in the triptych Dusk – a triptych which confirmed him as one of the most distinctive voices of a generation he once acidically described as beaten.
There’s very little of that sort of despondency around these warm up dates for Johnson in a newly assembled quintet however, each of which sold out in the brief moments it takes a secondary ticketing site to set up their bots. And if that implies pressure on a man who’s spent the last fifteen years largely on sabbatical it doesn’t show, as he strolls onto the compact, back projected stage seemingly no longer with the weight of any world on his shoulders.
Immediately it becomes apparent that if there’s a jukebox expectation amongst the crowd will be gently confounded, as the heavyweights are left for later and the pan-career set is true to just that ethic by opening with Global Eyes, Sweet Bird of Truth and the inter-album curio Flesh and Bones. Concessions are made; some of the ferocity of The The’s most drastic, confrontational work is almost by definition with so much time and distance between then and the present day dissipated, hence Infected and Waiting For Tomorrow All of My Life are less about the disorientation – and shock value – of their former selves but no less intense at their now geared down tempos.
In another moment of reflection Johnson wanders publically whether this material – most of it written well before we were able to connect to so much poisonous disinformation by pushing a button – is still important, a question answered decisively in the bowels of Armageddon Days Are Here Again and the savagely dystopian Heartland with an unequivocal yes, their paranoia-etched lyrics now more prophetic than ever.
There is a of course a dichotomy in performance when the subject matter is lyrically so brutal, lines such as “From my scrotum to your womb/My cradle to your tomb”, but one which at least the throng are happy to dismiss amongst the singalonga-existentialist-angst. It would be a hard observer though who could not see the beauty in This Is The Day, a song written Johnson confides when he was seven years old, or in the persistent faith of Love Is Stronger Than Death, accompanied poignantly by home movie footage of the singer with his now dead brother Andy.
Its in these moments that the truth emerges, one that whatever or whoever The The’s work was originally conceived of on behalf of there has always been a universality to it, an ability to connect people to people like beacons by articulating things we all feel about ourselves but cannot share. This guilt is telescoped in the poignant cataloguing of obsession True Happiness This Way Lies, notes by Johnson on the inescapability of desire – and a tenet of damnation most of us subconsciously live by.
The finale is another of these moments, a spiralling version of Uncertain Smile, complete with that piano solo delivered to perfection by keyboard player D C Collard, followed by the succour of closer Lonely Planet. If this was an examination, it was passed. Where this man, with his songs about emotion at their most elemental and the distorted poles of our moral compass goes next will be a comeback special of a different kind.