Nobody doesn’t want a new album from The Jesus and Mary Chain. That’s a significant enough point to excuse a double negative. In an era where the reunion tour and album have become nearly as fixed in the music industry’s circle of life as reboots, remakes, and sequels are in the lifetimes of successful television and film properties, not every act can be welcomed back with the same open arms. Scottish brothers Jim and William Reid, however, much like American contemporaries the Pixies, left their shared legacy in good stead, returning a decade later to find multiple generations of fans discovering, revisiting, and gushing over records the siblings had made in their mid-twenties.
“We’ve buried the hatchet to some degree … and thankfully not into each other,” frontman Jim Reid has quipped in recent years about the dysfunctional sibling relationship that has, at times, made a new Mary Chain record seem all but impossible. The shame, of course, being that anyone who has caught the brothers on tour together, especially recreating Psychocandy, knows that age has not caught up to the Reids even if wisdom has. Seeing Jim flamingo-footed at the point of a v-shape formation while William, partitioned off in his own enclave of monitors and pedals, hammers out ream after ream of liquid-metal sheets through strobes and periodic belches of thick fog acts as a portal that allows listeners to step into the artwork of Psychocandy or roam about the set of the “Just Like Honey” music video. If only the two could get into the studio without killing one another. That miracle, by any measure, arrives today with the release of Damage and Joy, the band’s seventh studio album and first in nearly two decades.
Bands aren’t typically reborn when their members are in their mid-fifties. At a certain point, they tend to tread the terrain they staked out for themselves long ago, occasionally coming within eyeshot of sonic frontiers they once fought back or discovering fault lines running beneath their claim that could potentially shake foundations again, but more often than not turning up old stones to find small nuggets embedded in weathered rock. In the case of the Mary Chain, it’s a vast landscape – one that stretches from sweet melodies strangled by barbed wire and drowned in abandoned swimming pools of feedback to glowing, gloomy pop unrolling across an infinite expanse – that left room for later albums like Automatic and Honey’s Dead to roam freely and explore without ever feeling confined. That landscape remains just as vast and beautiful all these years later for Damage and Joy, only the band, song after song, tread the safest possible steps across it.
The opening screeching salvo that bleeds into a tumbleweed of fuzz on “Amputation” immediately fingers the Mary Chain and, ironically, suggests something’s missing – a feeling that pervades most of the album. Songs like “Always Sad” boast melodies not even a parent could object to, but lack the peril that used to keep those same parents up at night worried about their kids. Nothing comes near approaching the filthy deconstruction of Psychocandy, and only one cut, “War on Peace”, dares stab at the brutal minimalism of Darklands. Instead, Damage and Joy leans more on the balladry of Stoned & Dethroned (sometimes note for note), the blues rock of Automatic (without the same bluster), and what often sound like Honey’s Dead B-sides. An amped-up take on the previously released “All Things Pass” does find Jim having to stretch his neck above William’s suffocating rallies, and “War on Peace”, patient and brooding, has him seriously wondering, “So what if I run/ Where would I run to?” before the track speeds off into oblivion like a pair of old-time bank robbers racing to reach state lines. But, on the whole, everything proceeds much too predictably and with far too much caution and restraint.
“I hate my brother, and he hates me/ That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” snarls Jim on “Facing Up to the Facts”. It’s a tension that once audibly spilled over into the records. Not so much a case of brothers attempting to outdo each other but rather to undo each other – like children knocking over each other’s block towers only to find more beauty in the collective rubble than in the individual structures themselves. Here, though, we see the Reids welcome a trio of female voices – sister Linda Reid, Isobel Campbell, and Sky Ferreira – to therapy, like Karen Parker and Hope Sandoval before them. Listeners will instantly melt into Campbell’s honey-dipped delivery on “Secret for a Song”, and Ferreira makes for an ideal accomplice on “Black and Blues”; however, so much of the album relies on a third party that it almost feels like avoidance, a Band-Aid for the fact that what really drives the Mary Chain – the musical tension between brothers – doesn’t feel present here. In a sense, we don’t want them to play nice with others until they relearn to be bastards to each other, at least on record.
“To make a good record in our fifties,” says Jim, “the way we are … I think is a minor miracle.” And Damage and Joy should be welcomed and celebrated for being a good record – make no bones. But it’s also such a great distance from that initial volley of the self-proclaimed musical revolution the brothers attempted to launch from their childhood home in East Kilbride, Scotland, more than 30 years ago. It may be a case of some honey simply being sweeter than others. However, when I read Jim Reid’s words about miracles, I consider how lucky we’d all be to still be tasting honey in good company once April skies eventually fade.
Essential Tracks: “All Things Pass”, “War on Peace”, and “Black and Blues”