Matt Johnson must be a patient man. It's been six years since the last album of new The The music (and four since the all-Hank Williams covers set, Hanky Panky) but he continues to sound very much like himself. As the one constant of the band, he has collaborated with Neneh Cherry, Johnny Marr, Sinead O'Connor, and Art of Noise's Anne Dudley, among others, using new players to explore a variety of psychological landscapes. The band's ninth full-length features guest contributions from names like Lloyd Cole, but its dark, dense sound is primarily the work of a core group with an odd pedigree. Drummer Earl Harvin, who has played with Seal and leads his own jazz combo, joins guitarist Eric Schernerhorn (They Might Be Giants), and bassist Spencer Campbell (Kenny Rogers, Amy Grant).
Johnson's personality is still the guiding force, chronicling the tales of an emotionally stunted underclass. Naked Self is a restrained effort, full of bare-bones tracks that have just enough layers to seem thicker than they are, while leaving enough space for Johnson's gravelly and mellow vocal phrasings.
A faraway keyboard vamp here, ambient vocals there, and it's usually just enough to fill the listener up without overdoing it. The electric guitars growl, but the textured acoustics keep them constrained. Johnson is the kind of auteur that the alternative landscape seems to miss only when he's gone. Unlike label mates Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson, he doesn't lash out in black and white but in shades of gray. The mostly acoustic "Phantom Walls" offers consolation with the observation that "pain can be your friend" -- allowing for the notion that, despite their sting, heartbreak and sorrow can actually offer the chance for personal growth.
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Still, the first half of the record is a bit too dry, lacking the musical punch of the accompanying lyrics. When Johnson and Co. finally pick up the volume, tempo, and temper toward the end, he actually seems to be enjoying the tumult. "Voidy Numbness," a taut track filled with sinewy guitar lines, connects perfectly with Johnson's thoughtful character study.
It may be another five years before Johnson returns with a new disc -- he's currently talking about an all-Robert Johnson album -- but we hope Naked Self has cleared the cobwebs.
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