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Jesus and Mary Chain: Darklands (1987)

October 11, 2013

darklands

Roll: 3-9-16
Album: Jesus and Mary Chain, Darklands — 2011 2CD/1DVD reissue

Until Stoned and Dethroned (1994) came out, Darklands (1987) was always my least favourite Jesus and Mary Chain record. It didn’t deliver what I wanted from JAMC. Sure, “Happy When It Rains“, boasts the mechanical post-modern rock’n’roll sound I loved on Automatic (1989), but not to the same extent; like it was a demo for that later album’s whole sound. But more importantly, and more detrimentally, Darkands famously abandons the “savage noise-pop” of Psychocandy (1985). To me Darklands was always a sort of nebulous, half-formed, netherworld of an album. So, in a way, one of their most aptly titled collections.

Over the years I’ve remained eternally hopeful and every time I listen to Darklands I expect to hear something in it I’d previously missed. Some hint of the magic and brilliance that’s been ascribed to it by music journalists, fans and bloggers in the years since it’s release. And though I’ll admit it never sounds as bad as I remember, I’ve never been able to hear it as other than a lethargic, boring mid-tempo folk-rock record marred by some pretty glaringly cheesy ’80s production.

I’ve never been sure if it’s just the song arrangements that never worked for me, but the John Hughes-style drum machines really don’t help matters. And I normally love me some grandiose ’80s drum machines, yet somehow I’ve always felt they sound entirely out of place on Darklands. To my ears, the album begs for an organic Sam Phillips/Sun Studio-style production. The songs are essentially a post-punk take on The Everly Brothers and deserve a more human touch.

Nor did it help to crank the reverb down to industry-standard levels. Frustratingly, the first true shoegaze classic is buried somewhere in here, just a remix away. Darklands could have been Loveless if the guitars had been reverbed-up and fuzzed-out instead of left clean and precise.  But they’re not even shimmery and atmospheric like Cocteau Twins‘ guitars, they’re just limp. JAMC just sound like bummed out country & western buskers strumming away, wishing they were somewhere else (arguably, this attitude—or lack of—ushers in the shoegaze era more than My Bloody Valentine‘s wall of blissful destruction or Spacemen 3‘s druggy haze).

Aside from not using a live drummer, it’s somewhat understandable why they made the production decisions they did with Darklands. In the liner notes of this reissue William Reid talks about consciously trying to not make Psychocandy II. He felt they would have been “stoned to death” and accused of running out of ideas if they’d stuck with their noise-pop sound. To me, in that light, Darklands can’t help but feel like a retreat. On Psychocandy the noise is, arguably, poured over top like a bucket of nails and glass. But instead of looking for a way to take the sound to the next level, integrating fuzz and feedback into their pop in a more organic manner, they completely discard the noise. It isn’t the lethargic tempos that make Darklands feel lazy to me, it’s a palpable atmosphere of having given up; of being too disinterested or exhausted to fight.

This fault in the production is evidenced most by “Fall” which is closest in approach to their earlier work. From a songwriting perspective, the song isn’t any better (it might even be weaker) than the other stand-out tracks on the album (“On The Wall“, “April Skies“, “Happy When It Rains”, “Darklands“), but there’s a raw, gripping excitement to it. The mix is even a little muddy compared to the other tracks, but it has that JAMC magic missing from every other song on the album. There’s a sense of commitment on “Fall” I immediately miss on “Cherry Came Too” which follows it.

That song perhaps indicates the real problem with the album is that the songs don’t truly hold their own. The most successful of the lot are second-tier JAMC classics at best. True, that does make them better tunes than the first-tier songs of many other bands in 1987, but, again, the lack of a unique approach in the production leaves them being pretty ordinary, lackluster ’80s British indie rock songs. Though they boast that unmistakable Reid Brothers style, they still come off as less hooky, less exciting Mighty Lemon Drops or Echo and the Bunnymen tunes, which isn’t really a laudable achievement (those bands would make more than enough boring versions of themselves later on). In fact, the best Darklands songs weren’t actually on Darklands. I’m always surprised to remember that “Some Candy Talking” and “Happy Place” were non-album cuts from the period.

These kinds of production beefs are the main reason fans look forward to expanded super-deluxe mega-bonus reissue packages like this edition. We’re always hoping the rawer demos, live cuts and BBC sessions will prove to be revelations. As expected, the ones here do strip the already naked songs to the bone but, frankly, these versions don’t miraculously bring the tunes to life—the songs simply remain kinda boring. The drum machines might sound less like something from the Pretty In Pink soundtrack, and more like Bobby Gillespie‘s caveman skins-pounding, but the returns are small.

The stripped-down demo of “Happy When It Rains” actually shines a light on the song’s shortcomings whereas the final album version highlights all it’s strengths. This, of course, is the whole point of the demo-to-final-version process and sometimes demo versions are only intended for historic interest, which is acceptable. But are all or any of these bonus tracks worth the cost of this re-issue set? If you’re a fan, the answer is going to be “yes” no matter what the track listing is and whether the DVD is worth watching.

The slightly tinnier Janice Long  versions of “Darklands” “Down On Me” (with live drums?) and “Deep One Perfect Morning” definitely seem essential on some level, even if they’re not going to inspire repeated spins. The one illuminating alternate version is found at the tail end of Disc Two, a previously unreleased version of “Darklands” with strings. Though a touch more melodramatic and ’80s soundtrack cheesy, the string sounds add what’s missing from the album as a whole—a slightly baroque and self-indulgent lushness.

I’m sure many would disagree and would cite the album as a triumph of minimalist miserablism. But I feel the album fails at that (unintended, according to the liner notes) goal and falls into a audio no-mans-land between epic Phil Spector theatricality and the bare-bones acoustic rock of something like Springsteen‘s Nebraska. It’s not quite ’80s and not quite ’50s and not quite timeless. There’s no rock’n’roll teeth to grip you, no art-rock experimentation to intrigue you, and too much pop music artifice to allow you delve into the world of the songs themselves. I just can’t shake the feeling that an overwrought production—something psychedelic and dreamy in the vein of Love and RocketsSeventh Dream of Teenage Heaven or a bombastic Jim Steinman/Meatloaf-esque rock-opera—is what the album needed to really make it truly great. Though both approaches would be the complete antithesis of what JAMC were clearly trying to achieve.

But back to Disc Two, which is the far superior disc in this set.  Mainly b-sides, it plays like the follow-up to Psychocandy everyone wanted, or expected. That is to say, it’s pretty much  Barbed Wire Kisses (1988)—my all-time favourite JAMC album—with a few substitutions. There’s really not a whole lot on Disc Two that wasn’t previously available to the hardcore JAMC fan on various compilations, including The Power of Negative Thinking box set (2007) which stole a bit of the thunder of this reissue series. The aforementioned strings version of “Darklands” is about all that’s genuinely new.

Yet, as an alternate-universe BizarroDarklands, Disc Two is one of JAMC’s best albums. Sheer non-stop buzz-saw and dentist-drill rock’n’roll. Quantifiably better than  than Barbed Wire Kisses? Truthfully, it’s probably not. But no less mind-blowingly awesome.

Since there hasn’t been a stand-alone DVD compilation of JAMC’s videos (there was a VHS released in 1989), the DVDs in this reissue series are worth owning. Even if the videos are generally all the same (the brothers Reid and hired guns looking bored, miming their songs in a sparse sound stage with vaguely psychedelic video overlays), they’re nice to have. The “live” TV appearances are predictably ridiculous and amusing.

Truth be told,  I’m not nearly as down on Darklands as I sound in this review. To an extent, it’s a victim of JAMC’s earlier (and later) triumphs. If it were the sum total of their recorded material, I’d probably be as much a champion of it as I am a critic today. And successful in its goals or not, it really is a unique artistic expression, no other record truly sounds like it, and it does deserve it’s place (#8 on Slicing Up Eyeballs top 100 albums of 1987 readers’ poll) in the pantheon of post-punk albums…

… but it’s still one of my least favourite JAMC albums.

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