There is a sense in which every single Jesus and Mary Chain record has seemed tremendously unlikely, except maybe the first one. Even then, the viewers of their earliest gigs would have to believe this band capable of doing two things: 1) staying in a room together long enough to record anything and 2) creating enough songs out of their “mostly-feedback and also kind of moan-singing” template to make a whole album.
The first seemed unlikely because, despite being a band whose only constant (and, it seems, necessary) members were brothers (Jim and William Reid), they still apparently found it impossible to play for more than fifteen minutes or so (generally with their backs to the audience, a habit that at least one of them never actually broke out of) in their early days without storming offstage. The second because it seems like a formula that doesn’t yield dividends for all that long actually.
Unlike the previous TCT entrant, Metallica, however, this results in less a sense of “eternally coming back” as much as a sense of “gosh, how are they still doing this?”
The answer, of course, is that mostly they weren’t. Damage and Joy is their first album in nineteen years, and, though the distance seems paltry in comparison, their previous album, Munki, was four years after the album which preceded it 1. They were never a band that proceeded at a frenzied pace.
A moment to tackle an unavoidable autobiographical detail. I fucking love the Jesus and Mary Chain. I love their sound, I love their public image 2, I love their very occasional existence. I love every album. If I tell you that I do not love every song, please be assured that it is impossible 3 to do so. They’re great, unreservedly, and without qualification. I call a lot of things favorite around here, and I would like to make it very clear to the reader that this is a very very special favorite. Like top ten ever favorite.
Coming to the question of whether or not this comeback itself was worth it is a bit different in the case of the Jesus and Mary Chain – they’ve only made half a dozen records (and probably that many again collections/reshufflings of b-sides, compilation tracks and various flotsam), and while each record sound unmistakably like the band itself, each record is also profoundly different from the others in from and approach.
They arrived on Creation Records 4 with one of the greatest debut singles ever in the form of “Upside Down,” which announces the squalling feedback/mumbling singing thing they would basically find several dozen ways to reinvent (or occasionally not reinvent, and instead just cannibalize from one of their own extant reinventions) over the course of their career. The b-side is also one of the best Syd Barret covers (“Vegetable Man”) ever recorded.
Their debut album, a year later, was the critically-adored Psychocandy, which is the one with “Just Like Honey” 5 on it. “Just Like Honey” is not only one of the best songs the band ever created, but is also a reasonable summary of what people think of when they think of the Jesus and Mary Chain – lots of noise, that Phil-Spector-biting drumbeat 6, mumbled vocals sung quietly. And while it created a shorthand for the way the band sounds, it’s not actually a sound the band spent a lot of time with.
Darklands, the follow-up, stripped out most of the noise elements, leaving the world with a great downer album, and also the Jesus and Mary Chain’s best straight-up pop songs 7. It was also sort of the end of the regular trajectory for the band, as after that it becomes almost untenably fractious and difficult to work with (or to work in, or at, or about, or near).
Automatic is something of a rebuilding album – the Reid brothers are the only people that play on all but one of the songs 8, and the result is occasionally (“Head On”, “Blues From a Gun”, “Halfway to Crazy”) as effective a distillation of what it is that makes the band work as they ever managed, but also occasionally kind of dumb. Not always in a good way.
Clearly seeking greener sonic pastures, Honey’s Dead is aggressive, even when it’s just aggressively pretty. It’s significantly more rockin’, and it opens with the line “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ.” 9 The title is a reference to “Just Like Honey”, and how they don’t want to be that band anymore. It also marks the return of the feedback, because the Reids contain multitudes. It is the band’s finest artistic moment, as an album, and it is basically perfect. Greener pastures sought, greener pastures found.
Stoned & Dethroned is another major wobble, although it’s not actually a bad album 10. It’s got a real Darklands 2: Darklandier vibe. Recorded after the band toured with Lollapalooza, it’s a record made by the band as a full band (a thing that had not happened since their first record), which makes it at least compelling as a captured performance. It was intended to be an acoustic album, and almost is.
Munki, then, is the last studio album of this bunch, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. The Reids’ relationship was pretty nonfunctional by this point (the two couldn’t really even get together to record the album, recording separately and in shifts). It contains both sides of the phenomenal “I Hate Rock and Roll/I Love Rock and Roll” 11 single, and a handful of other gems, but also sounds like an album assembled out of parts, rather than made whole by a creative entity.
A decade ago, the Reids buried the hatchet, and left the house to go on the first of what would become a series of reunion tours. This, technically, would be the beginning (and, given that it took a decade, the middle) of the comeback itself. But I wasn’t writing this a decade ago.
After ten years of playing their old songs, with occasional one-off releases that got interpolated into the setlist, the band decided to make a record 12. The logic seemed sound: when they could barely talk to each other (or play six songs in a row without trying to murder each other onstage) they managed to make good records, so why not now, when their fights are much more mundane 13?
The record, to the Mary Chain’s credit, is fine. It sounds, beyond all reason, like the follow-up to Munki. Although it does not sound like nineteen years have intervened. The record’s primary weakness is a lack of the no-fucks surefootedness that marks the best Jesus and Mary Chain albums 14, but the songs are generally there, the noise is generally there, and even a toned-down, less stubbornly insular Jesus and Mary Chain record is still pretty sure of itself.
Any album after a nineteen-year absence is going to be waited for pretty feverishly by the people to whom it’s important, and it’s entirely possible that the pre-album releases of “Almost Sad” and “Amputation” were entirely calculated. “Always Sad” is one of six songs that has a female guest vocalist, and it’s non-professional singer Bernadette Denning, who is also William Reid’s girlfriend 15 – it is not a terrible song, but it is easily the weakest of the duets on the record. It does a thing that isn’t uncommon with Mary Chain album filler, which is that it sounds pretty cool, and it’s got a good tune, but it’s not anything you’d reach for specifically.
The other advance song 16, then, was “Amputation”, which is…pretty bad. I mean, there’s just not a lot of ways to cut it. It’s not the worst song on the album (stay tuned for that one), but it’s boring, and it just sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain going through the motions without actually having very much to say. It is, perhaps ironically, much better in Jim Reid’s solo version from several years back, and is, in fact, a song about how people seem to prefer bands that sound like the Mary Chain to the genuine article. Inclusion of the song, then, is sort of obligatory, but also lacks the spite and pathos that makes the solo version so much fun. It’s a real leaden thump of a lead single. The reason I think this may have been a genius move is that it effectively reset expectations: if these songs were the singles, there was no reason to think the album would be special in any way.
Luckily, it gets considerably better. Some of the older songs – “All Things Pass” 17 and “Song for a Secret” especially – help to form a sort of bridge to the newer material (since “Amputation” pretty universally fails to do so). There are some clever callback/soundalike moments – the drumbeat from “Be My Baby”, which is also the drumbeat from “Just Like Honey”, is prominently featured in “Song for a Secret,” a lovely duet with Isobel Campbell, “Can’t Stop the Rock” is a sort of conceptual sequel to the “I Hate Rock and Roll”/”I Love Rock and Roll” diptych on Munki 18 (it is worth noting that those two songs were also, themselves, the a- and b-side.to a Sister Vanilla single).
The production on Damage and Joy comes from utility producer/bass player Youth, who began his career in the roughly-contemporaneous Killing Joke, and whose sense of spare separation and clean sound does a lot to change the way the Reids’ sound palette is applied. This affects things like the uniquely-heavy (for a JAMC song) “Mood Rider,” which is helped considerably by being pulsing instead of yelping, and “Los Feliz (Blues and Greens)”, which has some really prominent noise parts that are given room to be considered, rather than smothering the song. It’s not an effect that has ever been put to use on a Mary Chain record, and it’s immense.
Other standouts are the Honey’s Dead-ish “Presidici (Get On Home)”, the Isobel-Campbell assisted “Two of Us” 19, and the big rock-dude tension-and-release masterpiece “War on Peace,” which is a duet with Sky Ferreira. It is unclear why it takes four women 20 to do the job of basically one on this record. I suppose it didn’t hurt anything.
Here’s what absolutely did hurt something (and that something is my ears, and also my heart): “Simian Split.” It sounds like a Munki b-side. One of the bad ones. It also has faux-shocking (and actual-stupid) lyrics about being hired by Courtney Love to kill Kurt Cobain, which makes it probably the only song in rock history that could double as El Duche fanfiction 21. And it’s still not the worst song on the album. The worst song on the album (and close in the running for the worst song in Jesus and Mary Chain history) is the execrable “Facing up the Facts”. It starts out sounding like a bad cover of the unimpeachable “Sidewalking”, and lands up with Jim singing “I don’t want to be happy” over and over (and over) again. While the band itself is capable of moments of considerable levity, this really isn’t one of them – it seems like a mean parody, written by the band themselves, of the idea of a Jesus and Mary Chain reunion song. If that’s what it was meant to be, then fair play to the Reids. I’ll be happy never to listen to it again, though. Or, at least, not until I decide it can’t possibly have been that bad and try again to love it.
So the question here becomes: is this comeback a worthy artifact of the band’s existence, from the point of view of the listener? If you’ve read this far, you may already know that the answer is yes, but permit me to also say this: there are a lot of comeback albums that do a lot of things, and the rarest among them (although they do happen from time to time) are the ones where the band sounds, basically, like it is just following up its last record.
Damage and Joy is, as the follow-up to Munki would be, leaning into the straightforward rocker-ing tendencies, a little more noisy, and also kind of lazy (a curse that befalls the Mary Chain more than a little bit). If it’s different by circumstance (and by guest vocalists) than it might otherwise have been, then that’s the acknowledgment that it has been nineteen years. Otherwise I would’ve believed this could’ve come out in 2003 (or in 2007, when the band first got together).
- that one is Stoned and Dethroned, which the heathens and philistines among you may want to think of as “the one with the hit”. ↩
- specifically I love how they so clearly hate each other, but also hate everyone else, and so aren’t in a band with anyone else. ↩
- a thing that I know because I have, I promise, tried – and tried and tried – to love even the most resolutely unlovable of their songs. ↩
- they actually only made their first single for Creation, eventually finding a longstanding home on Geoff Travis’s Blanco y Negro, which eventually included Alan McGee. The Mary Chain were always something of the prototypical Creation band, which is only marred by the fact that they were almost never actually, y’know, on Creation, which is why the role of “prototypical Creation band” came from their original drummer’s post JAMC band, Primal Scream. ↩
- if it isn’t “Sometimes Always” from Stoned and Dethroned that you think of as “the hit”, then it’s probably “Just Like Honey”. ↩
- Also worth noting – Bobby Gillespie played two drums, and he played standing up. This was part Mo Tucker homage, and part way of disguising his own lack of drumming ability. ↩
- namely “I’m Happy When it Rains” and “April Skies” ↩
- their touring drummer, Richard Thomas, who was something of a Scottish drummer-about-town, plays on one song. ↩
- Jim then clarifies that that means he’d like to die on a bed of spikes. In the following verse he states that he’d like to die like JFK, explaining that he means that he would like to die both on a sunny day and in the USA. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s sense of humor is a weird thing – often dry enough to be unnoticed entirely, but is apparent once you start seeing it. This is a band, after all, that dressed like the Ramones but covered Pink Floyd and Can. At the very least there’s a sarcastic impulse there. ↩
- I have, in the past, been really hard on Stoned & Dethroned, but that’s mostly because I hated – and still hate, as in right now actively hate – “Sometimes Always”. ↩
- the latter of which having nothing to do with the Arrows/Joan Jett song of the same name. ↩
- in fact those one-off releases comprise half of the songs on Damage & Joy ↩
- but still present! I get the impression that they still don’t like each other, but they do like the money that comes from being a consistently-performing nostalgia band. ↩
- the other of their records that shares this sort of timidity (for a certain value of the word “timidity”) is Automatic, with which this record shares a lot of meta-musical qualities. ↩
- I mean, it doesn’t really work out super-well with “Always Sad”, but given that it was a duet with William Reid’s girlfriend – then Hope Sandoval, of similarly-fraught and recently-reunited Mazzy Star – that gave them their biggest American hit, why not try again? The answer: because Bernadette Denning is no Hope Sandoval. ↩
- As mentioned, a bunch of these songs already existed, but in the run-up to this record, these are the two songs that were released from this recording as singles or whatever. ↩
- which nobody really remembers was originally recorded, as the Jesus and Mary Chain, for the soundtrack to the television show Heroes. ↩
- or, you know, the “I Love Rock and Roll” b/w “I Hate Rock and Roll” single. ↩
- in which the lyrics claim that they don’t need drugs anymore, which…sure dudes. Whatever you say. But it’s also an older song – another former Sister Vanilla song, in fact – so maybe they realized the error of this kind of thinking. ↩
- I haven’t had the opportunity to mention that Linda Fox – nee Linda Reid – sings on a couple of them as well. She was the singer for Sister Vanilla, and is the literal actual sister of Jim and William Reid. ↩
- ask your parents about The Mentors, kids. It’ll be a good time for everyone. Or just watch Nick Broom’s Kurt and Courtney. ↩