The Jesus and Mary Chain were looking to change up their sound on their 1989 third release, “Automatic”. That release would stretch beyond their already trademark sound of aggression and sneer adding texture and mad rhythms. Bros. Jim and William Reid, the duo at the centre of JAMC, would look to drum machines and the blending in of the vocal pop harmonization of prior decades to set the release apart from their prior offerings. Taken on the surface that moves would seem like an attempt to water down their past unrelenting jackhammer sonics. Never fear, the Reid brothers would only incorporate those aspects to highlight their propensity for capturing the sounds of evil, aggression, sadness, rebellion and lust making it all their own proprietary blend. “Automatic” for the first time in the JAMC discography looked to present a sleekness that would allow the lads to take control of their persona and narrative. Their adoption of the drum machine was a sonic running commentary on fatalism and inevitability that would play out throughout the entire release.
“Automatic” followed 1988’s “Barbed Wire Kisses” and would be followed by the iconic 1992’s “Honey’s Dead”, but never underestimate “Automatic’s” importance in the Jesus and The Mary Chain discography. It has been a bit of a sleeper that has risen in reputation as the year's pass. The album was produced by the brothers Reid and recorded at Sam Therapy studios in West London. It would produce two hit singles, “Blues From a Gun” and “Head On”. The album would reach 11 on the UK album charts and 105 on the US charts. At the time of its release the reception was tepid, but in hindsight and counter to the conventional wisdom of the time, “Automatic” was a bit of a career peak for the band. It displayed true Reidian greatness taking pop sensibilities infusing them with anger and dipping them in a lysergic acid coating to draw the savvy listener. The band would set up a jigsaw puzzle to dissect, loading it with quandaries into sex, money, materialism, drugs and death all set to a soundtrack of thumping chaos. It was informed by the never far off the core of their musical approach which was an inbred contempt for the norm. Additionally, there was always a certain amount of one-upmanship the brothers had with other which informed the visceral sonics of any JAMC offering. On “Automatic” the brothers being intentionally ironic, turned to synths and drum machines to channel their iconoclastic emotions along with the throbbing bass and the feedback shoegaze techniques they had earlier trail blazed. What would result was a timeless classic that still engages and enchants today.
“Automatic” cranks into life with “Here Comes Alice” introducing a dark hearted gamine unrelentlessly heading your way bringing nothing good in her wake. She offers up the drug de jure to help you down the highway to hell. “You got the shakes and it’s gonna get worse. Don’t you know its all part of the curse? She’s got the hit that takes you into space”, there can be little doubt lyrically what is going on here. Sonically the song is filled with droning, insistent guitar licks and throbbing drum machines. The track’s overall impact is akin to rubbing salt into a laceration; ever so Marquis De Sade as it mesmerizes you into following the band down the alley way of doom. The second track “Coast to Coast” could certainly be described as a girls and cars selection. Here is a road trip fueled by God knows what substance. The drama builds and builds the intensity as the white divider dots go flying by. “I got my senses strung out to the sky…on the road, under a sky, coast to coast.” All of this transpires over a scorching guitar and pounding drum sequence delivered in a snarl. For fans of the Jesus and Mary Chain, it is oh so satisfying.
My absolute favorite song which won me to the JAMC cause is “Blues from a Gun”. There is something so cathartic about the track. The sonics are simply mad with a fantastic drum sequence and insane guitars that fit the mood of abandon perfectly. This song never ages. I still have to give this track a spin whenever I am about to go to the garage and start hitting pipes with wrenches to release my sheer frustration with life. The song lyrically speaks to survival over adversity, the ennui of hopelessness yet striving for triumph expressed in “Dreams of escape keep me awake. I’m never gonna get out and make it away. I’m a stone dead tripper dying in a fantasy… I guess that’s why I always got the blues.” The cacophony of the track is one of the epicenters of shoegaze, and for that I am eternally thankful.
“Between Planets” is a track that can be filed with the misfit girls considering suicide, balanced on the edge of sanity section. The song is filled with references to suicide, schizophrenia and insomnia, creating another postmodern aggressive track that would become a signature theme on the Jesus and Mary Chain's “Honey’s Dead”. Another track that would help birth many a shoegaze sonic is “UV Ray”. The first guitar run is simply mind-blowing. This head splitting, pile driving sound is astounding as the Reid Bros. displayed their total mastery of the quiet/loud technique before The Pixies would go on to proselytize the unconverted in the future. The lyrics of the song examined what lay under the overturned stones of the music industry of the time. The Reids found little to attract and much that repelled them captured in the verse, “you got to kick it while it’s on, you gotta take it while it’s going, you gotta walk before you run, you’re getting fun, fun, fun.” UV Ray is an outstanding track never to be missed.
“Her Way of Praying” is a gritty confrontational tune with taking no prisoners drum programming and guitars. The song presents a tough cookie with all the “come on’s” in her command. The track examines what happens when she meets her match. An apt description of the selection is a kinky “sex on wheels” song illuminated by lyrics like, “she’s crazy to want me, to taunt me… it’s her way of saying a prayer for me.” Teasing and tempestuous “Her Way of Praying” is another brilliant track.
And speaking of The Pixies, “Head On” would become more renown overtime for The Pixies cover than its original JAMC manifestation. But do not be fooled, the original is as good as or better than the cover. The song is loaded with drums, drums, drums and a totally addictive guitar treatment, sung through a snarky snarl. The lyrics, however, are about as romantic as the Reid Bros get, “as soon as I get my head around you I come around catching sparks off you… Makes you want to feel makes you want to try, makes you want to blow the stars from the sky”. The selection “Take It” contains the most intense industrial drums on the release. There is also a miasmic guitar percolating underneath the intensity making for an alluring listen. The sentiment expressed is being willing to take what is given and not look to what you can get out of any relationship. This kind sentiment could be considered quite a Pollyanna-like view except for the Reid Bros. installation of a layer of grime to keep things consistently confrontational.
“Halfway to Crazy” displays the lads at their most troubled, as they devolve into the insanity and madness that surrounds them. “Crazy, I’m halfway to crazy, suicide would waste me, homicide would break me…oh, is life as bad as dreams? I guess that’s just the way it seems.” The slower tempo and dreamy intro keeps spiraling into the black hole of the theme. The Nihilistic Existentialism of “Gimme Hell” continues to delve into the dark center of the Bros. Reid’s mental state and outlook. There can be no doubt the boys are headed to the nether regions. They do not recommend anyone should follow them but they are accurately documenting the trip. The pulled around and distorted sonics produce a grinding feeling of a drugged out hell. In the end the question being ask is what difference any of our intentions make if we all ended up in the same destination.
“Drop” is a musical presentation of hitting rock bottom after a drug binge. This is aptly framed by the lyric, "these twisted times can’t compare to mine.” The track is short but to the point and a dénouement to the journey that began with Alice coming your way offering the drug to send you on your trip. The final selection “Sunray” is a searing and tortured instrumental. It is loaded with excellent drum loops and scraping guitars. It is best described as suddenly hitting daylight after the dark unforgiving night you have passed through.
“Automatic” would be warts and all creation never relenting from showing the Reid Brothers and Co as they were. It was a combination of musical experimentation, a drug-fueled hegira, and a desire to never follow anyone else’s trail. This album along with many of JAMC’s releases would inspire a varied type of artists; from the likes of The Pixie to Echobelly, a vast number of Shoegaze acts along with an impressionable young James Mercer who would later form The Shins. the Jesus and Mary Chain would go on to critical acclaim with their next album “Honey’s Dead”. They would continue on through the 90’s with two more releases before the band would be brought to heel by their own self destructive substance abuse and the music business’ seismic shifts. 19 years of dislike between the brothers and the disinterest of the record business would keep JAMC on hiatus. A new era dawned for Jesus and Mary Chain with their recent comeback album, “Damage and Joy” released this year to critical and fan raves. As to “Automatic” and its legacy many who panned it simply didn’t understand its power, and now in hindsight it can be credited with being head and shoulders above so many releases of its era.