“You have to find your way back to creativity”, said Matt Johnson in last year’s documentary The Inertia Variations, in light of having finally completed and performed (for a live radio broadcast) his first The The song in some 15 years.
The extraordinary film, exploring the re-emergence of the enormously talented Johnson, considers the struggle to connect with one’s inner creativity (and disperse procrastination) in a world that brutally severs our deepest external connections. Weaving throughout the scenes is Johnson’s recital of John Tottenham’s epic poem of the title, which seems, at every turn, to mirror the songwriter’s predicament, provocative insights and dark humour.
Ultimately, the film contends with tragedy – showing how the intense emotions of losing his older brother become a catalyst for stirring him back into productivity. A path that has brought The The to London for a three-night run at a triangle of differing venues for their ‘2018 Comeback Special’ tour. I caught the The Inertia Variations at the ICA this week, after witnessing two (out of three) of the band’s hometown shows.
The Royal Albert Hall show was a spectacular start to the highly anticipated week of events, but from the very opening, the tone unexpectedly changed key, with Johnson’s announcement that his father passed away just two days previously. Poignantly, he explained that his father was planning to be at the show and it was clearly a difficult choice to continue with the tour.
There was a tangible billowing of empathy from the crowd. However, the dedication of the show to his father, coupled with the air of expectancy from fans, some of whom would not have seen The The live before their long hiatus, heightened the energy in the room.
Slow burning Global Eyes, from the NakedSelf album, opened a set drawn from across the band’s career, while familiar 1980s singles Heartland and The Beat(en) Generation were delivered surprisingly early. This latest incarnation of the band features musicians familiar from previous The The tours – James Eller on bass, DC Collardon on keyboards and Earl Harvin on drums, while newcomer Barrie Cadogan joins on guitar.
The group was initially in silhouette against a giant screen, which later showed a montage of footage, including extracts from the Infected video epic and personal family photos and videos. Johnson, in his now deeper, soothing and actorly voice asked that no one watch through their iPhone. The one person allowed to look through the lens is long-time video collaborator Tim Pope, who was filming the show for future release.
Songs written for lost loved ones were grouped together, with back-to-back renditions of last year’s new track, the graceful We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, 1993‘s powerful Love Is Stronger Than Death and the sombre Phantom Walls from 2000, respectively for his older brother Andy, his younger brother Eugene and his mother.
The heat rises for the heavier inflections of Dogs of Lust and Infected and the more delicate pop sweetness of This Is The Day. Johnson good-humouredly bats away the shouted out song requests from the crowd, indicating that they’ll be sticking to their setlist.
The encore of the lilting True Happiness This Way Lies, the staggering glory of Uncertain Smile and the clarion call of Lonely Planet sends me away uplifted, after a musical journey searching for meaning, facing fears, reaching for love and striving to find peace.
With more touring planned for the autumn and the prospect of new material, it looks promising that Johnson’s new productive streak will keep running.
I’m reminded of a moment at the end of The Inertia Variations. Poet Tottenham delivers to Johnson a tumbling, deriding dismissal of poetry, which is both hilarious and fierce, and ends with an admission that, despite his attempts, he hasn’t been able to stop himself writing poetry. The struggle continues for everyone…
Live review and photography by Imelda Michalczyk of The The at Royal Albert Hall in London (words) on 5 June 2018 and The Troxy in London (photography) on 7 June 2018.