This week on Great Albums: Ministry’s 1983 debut, With Sympathy! It’s not a metal album, and it’s not even an industrial album--it’s just some damn good synth-pop, despite who made it! Whether you’re curious where Uncle Al got his start and why he hates his first LP, or you just want some excellent New Romantic music, you should check this one out. Full transcript of the video under the break, as always.
Welcome to Passionate Reply, and welcome to Great Albums! Today, I’ll be tackling the debut album of one of the best-loved industrial bands--though it actually isn’t all that “industrial.” This is With Sympathy by Ministry, first released in 1983. Ministry are one of those acts that have gone through many stylistic evolutions throughout their career, and if you’re familiar with some of their more acclaimed works, it may surprise you to learn where they started out. While With Sympathy was the first full LP released under the Ministry name, it’s not the very first thing in their discography--that honour goes to the 12” single “I’m Falling,” released in 1981.
Music: “I’m Falling”
With a springy post-punk bass line and a tinny mechanical rhythm, “I’m Falling” is a rough-edged piece of cold wave. It was released on the famous Wax Trax! Records, well-known as the home of many of the most illustrious industrial acts of the 80s and 90s, from Coil and Laibach to Meat Beat Manifesto. But for their follow-up LP, Ministry would work with a major label, Arista, and twist that bass-heavy sound into something with less hiss and more groove.
On the opening track, “Effigy,” a bright synth line artfully fences an electric guitar riff for dominance, showing the extent to which the sonic blueprint of British New Wave acts like A Flock of Seagulls prefigured With Sympathy. This is an album that could only have been conceived in 1983, in the full flush of synth-pop’s mainstream popularity, and it does feel like a cash-in on the success that imported European synth-pop achieved in the first few years of the 1980s--even in Ministry’s native America.
While I’ve covered some albums with somewhat controversial legacies before, With Sympathy probably sets the record for the work that’s most despised by its own creator: Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen has disowned this album even harder than Ralf Huetter did the Kraftwerk albums before Autobahn, even going so far as to claim its affable, fairly commercial sound was entirely the product of Arista’s executive meddling. As with all legends of how great art was made, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve this legend, or think it’s possible to know if it’s “true”--I simply present it to you as a piece of context, a myth that informs the history of this work. It’s worth noting that the acerbic, aggressive track “Here We Go” is often held up as a form of evidence for this story.
Music: “Here We Go”
The lyrics of “Here We Go” seem to imply that the song is, itself, intended as some sort of offering to the pop charts, but the confrontational style of the vocals is hard to overlook. I suppose it’s somewhat catchy, but not exactly in the same way that a real hit song is--there’s a certain fetching incompetence behind it, that makes its energy that much more compelling. “Here We Go” was released as a single, but only as the fourth selection from the album to receive that honour. A similar quality of dissonance between words and music can be found on the closing track, “She’s Got a Cause.”
Music: “She’s Got a Cause”
Like so many pop-leaning albums by artists who belong more on the underground side of things, With Sympathy has this constant tension bubbling within, and that crass, subversive industrial mindset is straining within the soft prettiness of its synth textures. The darkly playful “She’s Got a Cause” presents us with a narrator who seems to enjoy an idealized abuse at the hands of their lover, in a manner that’s reminiscent of the common industrial preoccupation with sado-masochism. And yet, it sounds downright bubbly--surprisingly so for a closing track, too. The album’s third single, “Work For Love,” is another that plays with this dysfunctional relationship theme.
Music: “Work For Love”
With tight handclap percussion, a call-and-response hook, and even a rhythm break, “Work For Love” certainly delivers on a “work chant” feel. Like “She’s Got a Cause,” it’s a very fun track, on the surface, but the more you think about its gleeful commodification of love and intimacy, the more sour it seems. Given the expected hard R in “work,” this seems like as good a time as any to note frontman Al Jourgensen’s apparent decision to ape something of a working-class English accent, by far one of the most derided features of With Sympathy. Personally, though I’ve never found this all that offensive--there are many styles of music in which vocalists adopt something of a trade cant, and the conventional twang of country singers is as much of a stylistic convention of the music as country guitar. I tend to see a person’s art as a deliberately crafted creation, where the self might be re-imagined in creative ways, and I think the unrelenting demand for complete “authenticity” from artists is little more than rockist hogwash. But that’s just me.
The cover of With Sympathy is one that really puts the capital-R “Romantic” in “New Romantic.” An artfully splayed hand, with very vampish black nails, gestures ambiguously towards wilting, crumbling red roses, an iconic symbol of the impermanence of youth, love, and idealism. The out-of-focus backdrop for the image might be interpreted as veined marble, adding a classicizing touch, or perhaps a stormy sky filled with lightning, adding to the sense of melodrama. The title “With Sympathy” calls attention to the album’s gothic morbidity in a gleefully tongue-in-cheek fashion, and I wish it weren’t so easy to miss on the cover, placed as red-on-red text in the middle of the roses.
As I hinted at earlier, Ministry have never made anything else that sounds similar to With Sympathy. Their second LP, 1986’s Twitch, is a marked sonic departure, featuring harsh, mechanistic industrial assaults. An extremely different album, for sure, but one that I also like quite a lot, in its own way! By the 1990s, Ministry would adopt an increasingly guitar-driven sound, eventually blossoming from industrial into full-blown heavy metal--a transformation that makes With Sympathy look even more bizarre in the context of their catalogue.
Music: “Over the Shoulder”
While I’ve provided a lot of contextual information about With Sympathy, I do want to mention that when I first discovered this album as a teenager, I didn’t know much about industrial music at all, let alone Ministry. And I loved the album! At the end of the day, I think With Sympathy is a very enjoyable New Romantic album, in a vacuum, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in early 80s synth-pop. Don’t let those later metal albums scare you away from some damn good pop.
My favourite track on With Sympathy is “I Wanted To Tell Her,” the album’s second single. It gets off to a great start, playfully introducing us to an impressively groovy bass guitar, and features a duet between Jourgensen and one Shay Jones, who’s also credited as a co-writer on the song--the only writing credit on the album besides Jourgensen. While Jones would later release some house singles under her own name, she seems to have been a session musician at this point in her career, but does an astounding job for a hired gun. The instrumental of “I Wanted To Tell Her” is almost identical to a bonus track from the “I’m Falling” single called “Primental,” albeit with a bit more studio polish--but that extra bit of professionalism, and its superbly bitter and bitchy duet, push it over the top for me. That’s all for today--thanks for listening!
Music: “I Wanted To Tell Her”
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