Published on March 9th, 2015 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Soul Mining’ – The The 
Summary: You’ll recognize one song from its placement in TV commercials, but the story behind The The’s 1983 masterpiece deserves to be retold. Soul Mining is a gloomy, synth-driven record that can’t help but to lay it all out on the table.
Producers: Paul Hardiman and Matt Johnson
Notable Guests: David Johansen of the New York Dolls, Jools Holland of Squeeze
Top 40 U.S. singles: None
How can a 32-year-old song that was never a hit in America in the first place be thrust into the popular consciousness seemingly overnight?
Welcome to the wonderfully confounded world of TV advertising.
“This Is the Day,” a minor UK hit from 1983, has become an unlikely go-to song for use in commercials – everything from Levi’s to M&Ms to Amazon. Youtube it. No doubt it’ll ring a bell. Like, immediately. Now The The (one of the most deadpan band names ever) is getting more exposure than they have in years.
And I mean years.
The The’s “This is the Day” is heard prominently in this M&M’s TV commercial.
Ironically, jingle status descends upon one of the most drearily prolific bands of the 1980s. In all actuality, The The is reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails. Both bands essentially boiled down to inexhaustible frontmen and a rotating cast of characters behind them. Each group seemed to thrive off of abstract musical arrangements with lyrical armaments proficient enough to flip your mind inside out. They slogged it out in their respective arenas, of course. Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails rose to prominence in the 1990s by working from an industrial base. The The came at it from the angles of ’80s alternative rock and New Wave.
The central musician in The The is Matt Johnson, now a 53-year-old conservationist living in London. For all intents and purposes, it’s Johnson who’s responsible for 1983’s Soul Mining, which currently holds a 92/100 score on Metacritic. The New Musical Express, one of many journalistic outlets to praise The The, famously admired Johnson for his “literary flair” and Mojo Magazine recently became another outlet to feature Soul Mining in an ‘80s retrospective piece, placing it among the very best albums of the decade.
So, why haven’t you heard of Soul Mining again?
For one, Soul Mining never charted in America. It did dynamite business in the Netherlands, but not so much in the States. Soul Mining didn’t boast a stateside hit single, The The wasn’t included on any notable ‘80s soundtracks, they didn’t film any ultra-quirky music videos and didn’t get a spot at Live Aid.
You’ve got the commercial spots now, but come on. That’s more than 30 years after the fact.
If there’s one thing music critics love, it’s an above-average band that’s under the radar. So what did they hear that catapulted Soul Mining among supposedly the best albums of the Reagan era? Just what was all the fuss about?
It probably starts with the band’s Cars-meets-Bowie sound, which is apparent right away on Soul Mining. “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All My Life)” pushes smoldering synth-funk that swirls around lines like “My mind has been polluted/My energy diluted” and blossoms into an exhibit of meta-modern ‘80s production.
From “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow:”
I’ve been filled with useless information
Spewed out by papers and radio stations
I’ve been hounded by fair-weather friends
Sowing the seeds for my discontent
“This Is the Day” begins with a blue-eyed synth groove, which made it a natural fit for TV commercials. An accordion played by Paul “Wix” Wickens – he’s toured with Paul McCartney since the late ‘80s – punctuates the song, which seems to trace the thoughts of a washed-out cokehead.
A 1989 interview with The The frontman Matt Johnson.
“The Sinking Feeling” starts with the tip-toe of the familiar Yamaha DX7. Chanting ensues, followed by references to being “raped by progress.” This ain’t beach music.
Other less-than-cheery lines from “The Sinking Feeling:”
–I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country
-My memory, my found deceiver, is turning my past into pain
-My head feels like a junk shop
-I sit and stare at my reflection, while the darkness chills my bones
It should come as little surprise that Johnson came to promote political causes. Just a few years after Soul Mining’s release, he played several shows in England to benefit the country’s Labour Party. The shows were reportedly stripped down and ultra topical.
The most memorable moment on Soul Mining comes by way of a 3-minute piano solo in “Uncertain Smile,” played by Jools Holland. Holland was a founding member of the ‘80s group Squeeze (“Black Coffee in Bed,” “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” and quirky host of Later … With Jools Holland, a music TV show that airs both stateside and in the UK. The show has featured Oasis, Metallica, John Mayer and countless UK bands.
The band plays “Uncertain Smile” live with Jools Holland.
Holland was one of many distinct guests to grace The The’s personnel list in 1983. While his contribution isn’t as memorable, David Johansen of the New York Dolls wails a commanding harp on “Perfect,” the album closer.
All the while, Matt Johnson’s bleak perspective is relentless, and all but impossible to ignore.
From “Soul Mining:”
Something always goes wrong when things are going right
You swallowed your pride
To quell the pain inside
Someone captured your heart
Like a thief in the night
And squeezed all the juice out until it ran dry
“The Twilight Hour” sounds like “Sympathy for the Devil” if it were to be updated for the 80s post-punk crowd. Johnson’s bummed out and angry, though suspense comes naturally to his vocal.
It’s like Johnson imagines the world through shades of Blade Runner.
From “The Twilight Hour:”
A red sky at night may be a shepherds delight
But you’re cutting chunks from your heart and rubbing the meat
Into your eyes, she can’t leave you now, you’ve given up
All your friends, you’re relying on her for your independence
She can’t leave you here alone and defenseless
“The Twilight Hour” is a tense, frustrated track.
Does Johnson ever lighten up? Allow me to spoil the surprise – no, he doesn’t. Not even close. But this isn’t a record about peaks and valleys. It’s an album about being in a corner, where it doesn’t much matter whether you shake a fist or surrender a tear. You’re not winning either way.
I, I am a stranger to myself
And nobody knows I’m here
When I looked into my face it wasn’t myself I’d seen
But who I’ve tried to be
The 9-minute epic, “Giant,” fades out after Johnson repeats the line, “How can anyone know me when I don’t know myself?”
Say this about Soul Mining – it’s music with the power to cut you, forcing you to bleed red. It’s written from a place of sincerity and integrity. It may not always be pleasant, but Johnson and his music both come across like they’re at least honest. And the power to find the right words and tones to convey that honesty is a remarkable power indeed.
So the next time “This Is The Day” comes on your TV to plug Cymbalta, remember there’s more to the story than what you hear at first.
It’s a good lesson for us all.