Comeback albums have an unmistakable stigma attached to them. Of course, such a burden doesn’t arise out of nowhere, as albums released to mark the return of many classic artists in popular music end up being underwhelming and not living up to the initial excitement aroused by the idea. Whilst few comeback albums are genuinely bad, it would seem that few are particularly good also, with the majority simply being another respectable but forgettable addition to the artist’s discography and, indeed, this seems to be the case for the return of Scottish alternative rock band The Jesus & Mary Chain, with their first album following nearly two decades of studio silence, Damage & Joy. In their prime, the Reid brothers-fronted group proved to be one of the most influential rock groups of the 80s, laying the groundwork for the development of various emerging music trends. On their pivotal debut album, Psychocandy, the band’s marrying of a post-punk aesthetic with pop stylings and even an influence from noise music created a definitive and seemingly timeless sound. What’s more, the ambient walls of noise created by guitar feedback that were applied to conventional compositional techniques marked a sound that would go on to influence the development of shoegazing in the late-1980s. Psychocandy, as crucial as it was to the direction of pop and rock music in the 1980s, was essentially a one-off, with The Jesus & Mary Chain pursuing a more archetypal approach to indie and alternative rock on their sophomore record, Darklands, leaving behind the dissonant distortion of Psychocandy in favour of a more melody-driven approach to songwriting. On their subsequent releases in the late 80s and into the 90s, the band showed no signs of returning to their original stylings, even naming their fourth album Honey’s Dead, in reference to the opening track from their debut, Just Like Honey, which seemingly signified a complete and irreversible departure from the sound of Psychocandy. As such, no one would have expected a comeback album from The Jesus & Mary Chain to feature anything other than the alternative rock attitude developed throughout the vast majority of their initial career and, indeed, Damage & Joy does just this. What’s not quite as expected, however, is the spotlessly clean production on this album, which creates a much lighter mood than one would expect from an album from The Jesus & Mary Chain. This doesn’t necessarily work in the group’s favour, though, with the ways in which this record evokes the group’s original flare being rather limited. Ultimately, there are certainly some good moments over the course of the album’s runtime, but it feels largely unremarkable overall. The fact that the previous sentence could comfortably be applied to the majority of releases in indie and alternative rock nowadays goes to show that Damage & Joy, whilst perfectly competent, adds little of note to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s discography and, if it were not a product of such an important rock band, it would likely be forgotten almost instantly.
Despite there being a 19-year gap between their releases, Damage & Joy ultimately seems to pick up from where The Jesus & Mary Chain’s previous album, 1998’s Munki, left off, which was once assumed to be the band’s last ever release. However, this makes more sense when considering that a significant portion of these songs are reworkings of tracks that appeared on Little Pop Rock, the sole studio album, released in 2007, from the Reid brothers’ sister, Linda, who records under the solo musical moniker of Sister Vanilla. Given that both Jim and William Reid contributed significantly to Little Pop Rock, it was essentially an album from The Jesus & Mary Chain, but with guest vocals from Linda, who also provides singing support on Damage & Joy. The decision for a huge chunk of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s big comeback record to be comprised of songs that they have already recorded on another album is unequivocally questionable, but perhaps not surprising from a band who have been known to finish gigs within a quarter of an hour of stepping on stage. Some may refer to such an attitude as an admirable, punk-like callousness, but with regards to the quality of the re-recordings on Damage & Joy, it comes across more like a lack of new ideas. For the most part, these revised songs add little to their original versions and sometimes even strip them of some of their initial charm. The Two of Us, for instance, initially closed Little Pop Rock with a sweet little rock tune that featured a blaring lead guitar and some airy production that emphasised a slight shoegazing vibe. The reworked version on Damage & Joy, however, is a prime example of how this album’s squeaky clean production works against it a lot of the time, as, without the breezy atmosphere of the original, the song is a pretty run-of-the-mill pop rock standard that displays nothing at all remarkable on the songwriting front. Other songs, however, do display a heightened awareness of how these older songs should be approached as to add something more to them. The closing track from Damage & Joy, Can’t Stop the Rock, is a better demonstration of the group’s abilities of reworking these tracks, and it almost feels as if this version would have suited Little Pop Rock better than the original. Indeed, with a guitar tone that resembles that which was featured on the original version of The Two of Us, and with the dainty duet from Linda and Jim, this version would certainly fit snuggly into the tracklisting of Sister Vanilla’s LP, perhaps even more so than the more acoustic-focussed original. This being said, however, whilst the reworking of Can’t Stop the Rock exhibits a heightened vision from the band as to how these songs should be re-imagined, the song itself is pretty rudimentary as far as airy indie rock goes. Indeed, Little Pop Rock may have its few compelling quirks, but it is by no means the cream of the crop for mid-2000s alt-rock, hence it is no surprise that many people had completely forgotten about its existence until Damage & Joy came along. As such, this new album from The Jesus & Mary Chain suggests that they were disappointed with the attention that some of these songs received at the time and tried to bring them back into the spotlight, but, given that the compositions themselves are rather elementary and unmemorable, no amount of pristine production could resolve these fundamental issues.
As for the original material on Damage & Joy, much of it is as inconspicuous in terms of songwriting and performances as many of the older cuts. The second single from the album, Always Sad, which features a guest vocal appearance from Bernadette Denning that is delivered with a very similar inflection to Linda, is a brief pop rock number that could have been pulled from the soundtrack to a summer blockbuster from 10 years ago, as that’s certainly how nondescript it is. The lead single from Damage & Joy, the opening track Amputation, is slightly more varied in the level of songwriting that’s exhibited, plus this track features one of the few examples of the production on this record being rather successful, with the fuzzed-out guitars sounding nicely textured whilst a swirling drone is worked into the mix that calls back to some of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s earlier material. This being said, the choice to go without live drumming, instead opting for some rattling electronic percussion, is an odd one, especially when some organic drums could have livened the cut up a bit. Amongst the other original songs, Los Feliz (Blues and Green), the album’s central track, is the only other example that conveys any particularly notable qualities. The minimalist orchestration of sparse strings and grumbling horns over the chorus pairs well with the overall acoustic atmosphere of the song, and this track undoubtedly displays the best songwriting on the record, courtesy largely of the unexpected minor detour the band takes during the bridge. Outside of these few moments, however, much of the new material on Damage & Joy simply feels purposeless in how rudimentary it is, with The Jesus & Mary Chain hardly making a case for a comeback following 19 years away from recording under this name.
As is often the case with comeback albums, Damage & Joy presents The Jesus & Mary Chain at perhaps their most blasé, which is evident not only in the recycling of previously recorded songs, but in the general unremarkable nature of this record. The entire album is incredibly safe in a way that almost contradicts the band’s previous output, with even the production being so clean as to soften the blow of a usually snide and crass group. In terms of compositional scope, too, this LP is, for the most part, relatively insular, with the outfit choosing to remain comfortably seated in the accessibility of some by the numbers indie rock, rather than take any risks. As such, Damage & Joy is, ultimately, quite a nondescript endeavour, adding nothing of note to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s legacy and likely being forgotten about in the near future. Whilst not staining the back-catalogue of the band as some comeback albums have for other artists, Damage & Joy is relatively harmless, but that in itself is unlike the group’s initial callousness, and thus this record seems adrift in their discography.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10