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Still Pissed Off After All These Years

The The's Matt Johnson refuses to go quietly into the night.

Matt Johnson, the man behind the entity dubbed The The, is a good quote -- and he knows it. "I'm one of the kinds of people who journalists like," he says, "because I'm always putting my foot in it and speaking my mind."

How so? Most performers who've just issued their first album on a new label are prudent enough to avoid slagging their imprint's parent company. But not Johnson, 38, who goes after Seagram, owner of the nothing records subsidiary that just put out Naked Self, The The's latest, with the enthusiasm of a starving dog in a butcher shop.

"The conglomerization of the record industry is very worrying, and Seagram is one of the worst offenders," he declares in a British accent thick with indignity. "I don't think it has any business running a music company, to be honest; they should stick to drinks. The music industry is unlike an industry where you're dealing with inanimate objects, because you're dealing with people's feelings on both sides: the people who create the music and the people at the record company who really need to be enthusiastic about it in order to bring the best of it to other people's attention. It's not the same as selling cans, drinks or cars, and I don't think you can go about it in the same way -- and the rumors that I hear through the industry bear me out. In talking to a lot of people who work for them, the dismay amongst the employees is shocking, and the morale is terrible."

Such comments call the phrase "career suicide" to mind. But despite his trademark disregard for self-censorship, Johnson, now living in New York City near Wall Street, has managed to maintain a nice standard of living in a notoriously fickle profession for around two decades -- a far greater span than the ones enjoyed by uncounted musicians who assumed that the road to longevity was paved with the principles of sucking up and playing by the rules. It'd be nice to think that quality had something to do with it, especially considering that Naked Self is quite a potent offering. But odds are good that Johnson has survived in large part because of his single-minded persistence and a passion that has hardly flagged since the early '80s. The majority of angry young men who emerged during the original punk and new wave era have either mellowed substantially (Elvis Costello) or turned into parodies of themselves (John Lydon, who's now trotting out his Johnny Rotten shtick for the amusement of aging VH1 viewers). Johnson, however, still seems to harbor a bottomless reservoir of resentment and anger. Even the popularity of innocuous teen pop riles him up.

"There's so much dross out there now and it's shocking that they can get away with it," he says. "I can't believe the tolerance level of the general public. Maybe they're starting to turn it off -- I don't know -- but I'm surprised it's taken so long for something to come along and blow this stuff out of the water. Because it's enough to drive you around the twist."

At the same time, Johnson takes pains to leaven his inveterate misanthropy with the occasional upbeat remark. When he refers to himself as an "optimist," he instinctively pauses to allow for the laugh he knows this assertion will prompt. But he repeatedly argues that the obstacles to creative expression endemic to the current music environment actually present artists with wonderful opportunities (he praises the DIY approach to commerce associated with Frank Zappa and Ani DiFranco) and acknowledges in an awkward but sincere manner the impact on him made by his son, Jack, who's three.

"It just opened me up," he says. "The whole experience of seeing your child born touches you in ways that you can't even imagine. It's not something that can be contrived, and it really affected this album."

Don't worry: Naked Self isn't a collection of marshmallowy lullabies for the pre-toilet-training set. The disc, built around a support crew consisting of onetime Iggy Pop guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, MC900 Foot Jesus drummer Earl Harvin and studio pro Spencer Campbell, is overwhelmingly dark and foreboding, with plenty of jagged guitar noises and doomy tempos complementing Johnson's meditations on urban angst ("Boiling Point"), ennui ("Shrunken Man") and exploitation ("Swine Fever," which kicks off with the inspirational lines "Fee fi fo fum/Smell the blood of a gullible bum/Brain dead bored bought into the fraud/Bigger! Harder! Faster! More!"). And while the three songs Johnson wrote for Naked Self following Jack's arrival on the planet are more melodic than his other inventions, they won't cause many listeners to compare him with Little Mary Sunshine. "Soul Catcher," for instance, includes the verse "I can barely face it/My life is halfway through/And I still haven't done/What I'm here to do," while "Weather Belle" is a snapshot of passing strangers ("It's the first and the last time/That we'll ever meet") that's more dour than wistful. As for the delicate, acoustically driven "Phantom Walls," it juxtaposes outwardly benign advice ("Open your heart again/And let the walls dissolve") with sentiments that can be read in a decidedly creepy way, such as "Don't try to run away/Because pain can be your friend." Thank you sir; may I have another?

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