Saturday, 22 December 2012
The debt to the who is immediately obvious in the first few tracks. 'The Modern World', a single, nicks the riff from 'Pictures of Lily'; 'Standards', one of Weller's Orwell-influenced songs that channel anxiety about conformity but lacking the subtlety of the later 'In the Crowd' , is a variation on 'I Can't Explain'. 'The Modern World' is a punk teenage shout - 'I don't give two fucks about your review' maybe protests too much - as is 'In the Street, Today', a song from Weller's back pages, co-written with former friend and erstwhile band member Dave Waller. Neither song is very impressive, the latter's line 'the kids want some action/ and who can fucking blame them now' indicating the level of sophistication at work. It's clear that punk, as Weller's 'inspiration drive', is running out on This Is The Modern World, and the overpass and tower blocks on the cover point towards a different articulation of anomie and angst rather than punk energy and action. 'London Girl' signifies an emergent trend in Weller's writing, description- or character-based songs that would provide much of the best of his lyrics later in The Jam's career, but here it's embryonic, a bit of a reach.
Squeezed between the two Who-inspired songs on side 1 is Foxton's 'London Traffic', one of two compositions on the lp. Neither are much cop, to be honest, and the best that Foxton himself says about the 1978 single 'News of the World' on Don Lett's (rather uninformative) documentary The Making of All Mod Cons is that it 'tided them over' between the punk period and the mature phase signalled by All Mod Cons. 'London Traffic' is very slight, built around a Foxton bass riff and enlivened by Weller's jangly Rickenbacker figure that takes us back to beat groups c.1965; his other song, 'Don't Tell Them You're Sane', which closes side 1, is clumsy musically and lyrically. (There's an awkwardness, a lack of melodic phrasing, about most Foxton songs; at his best, in 'Smithers Jones', he was capable of fine writing, but these were few and far between.)
Considering how poor the album is thought to be, there's a core of songs on This Is The Modern World which indicate that (as with many Jam albums) that with more time and attention, this could have been a lot stronger as an lp. 'The Combine' is another 'when you're in the crowd' song (looking back to 'Away from the Numbers' and ahead to 'In the Crowd' and many others), referencing Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and energised by Foxton's propulsive bass line and a catchy bridge to a jangly outro section. It was my favourite song on the album when I first bought it. Three songs - 'Life from a Window', 'I Need You' and 'Tonight at Noon' - are melodic, occasionally soaring mid-tempo numbers which engage Weller's minor mode, the 'dream' pastoral or 'psychedelic' flavourings of Ray Davies in particular. 'Just dreaming', Weller sings on 'Life from a Window', connecting it to later dream-songs like 'Dream Time' from Sound Affects, 'Dream of Children' or 'Tales from the Riverbank' ('true it's a dream, mixed with nostalgia/ but it's a dream that I always hang on to, that I always run to'). These songs are the jam's inflections of the kind of psyche-pastoral that Rob Young identifies in Electric Eden, and bespeak Weller's particular English imaginary. 'Tonight at Noon's surreal title and autumnal flavour makes it the ur-song for this mode in The Jam's catalogue, and remains affecting. 'I Need You', which has a lovely melodic bridge , and is the first Jam love song (a fact for which Weller had to apologise at gigs in '77); while not as heartfelt or directly romantic as the half-hidden 'English Rose' on All Mod Cons, demonstrates a broadened emotional range and songwriting ambition. This song is neither wistful, nor demonstrates the urgency of desire, nor (late-60s like) posits love as a kind of counter to power. Instead, it's personal, and innocent, in a way, in its representation of feeling.
The album's inner sleeve features pen-and-ink illustrations by Conny Jude, and in one (the largest) Weller is depicted as a spike-haired romantic, drooping sensitively over a desk or fence, 'dreaming' or contemplating (the teenage poet, perhaps). It's that note, a signal departure from the black suit and ties of In The City, which is at the core of This Is The Modern World's best songs, and the softer drums and guitars (and occasional use of an acoustic guitar) mark the album as a musical progression from the first album. Its commercial failure, and the problems in the run-up to All Mod Cons meant the Jam ultimately went in another direction than the one that can be glimpsed here, the tough, streamlined guitar pop of the next 3 albums. This Is The Modern World has to many weaker songs, and lacks a clarity of vision, to make it a true album rather than just a collection of tracks, and it fails as a calling-card for a psyche-pastoral Jam future. But still, is has its moments.