“I wanna die just like Jesus Christ.”
That’s how The Jesus and Mary Chain jumped into their 1992 album, Honey’s Dead. And if offended listeners hadn’t turned the disc off by the time irreverent opener “Reverence” got around to “I wanna die just like JFK,” they probably should have because the content of the lecherous, “Lolita”-esque second track, “Teenage Lust,” is hardly gentler.
At first glance, Honey’s Dead looks like a gratuitous attempt to ruffle everyone’s feathers. Its title suggests an unceremonious disavowal of the principles that made the Mary Chain’s groundbreaking 1985 debut Psychocandy and its legendary cut “Just like Honey” so enduring. And the first two tracks of Honey’s reek of unapologetic violence and pedophilia. But in reality, the album is more physical than violent, more sexual than pedophilic and more resembling of Psychocandy than its immediate predecessor, the 1989 new-wave machine gun Automatic.
After spending the previous five years relying on only a drum machine to hold time, the Reid brothers enlisted a living, breathing person — Curve’s Steve Monti — to keep rhythm on Honey’s Dead. As a result, the Mary Chain turned into something of a traditional (in a very liberal sense of the word) rock band.
The newer rock approach smacks out of nowhere with the third track, “Far Gone and Out,” one of the Chain’s most radio-ready efforts. Combining textbook rock lyrics — trains, rain, heart attacks, a girl dressed in black — with a melody so simple that it can be hummed along with by the time the second verse comes along, the track’s outright tenacity is the only clue that it emerged in a post-punk music world.
“Rollercoaster,” generously borrowing melodic passages from The Byrds’ take of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” may be buried in the middle of side two, but after its unrelenting drive of sleigh bells and heavy guitars recedes, it stands as the only true challenger to “Far Gone and Out” for the honor of the album’s best track. It’s no surprise either — the two songs are virtual twins, right down to their chart prowess.
“Rollercoaster” actually graced the U.K. top 50 as a single in 1990. And in the process, it laid out much of the formula for Honey’s Dead: big melodies, big guitars, fast tempos and distortion and feedback left in the background. The choice to include it on the album couldn’t have been too contentious — not only is it a perfect fit, it’s a thesis statement. It demonstrates just how the Mary Chain could abandon its various musical antics and still remain vital as a no-holds-barred rock band.
If the album is defined by these twin peaks, then the valley between them is quite the fertile plain itself. Jim Reid’s up-and-down vocal on “Tumbledown” is a part dozens of mid-’90s alternative rock one-hit wonders probably wished they had a chance to sing on MTV. “Sugar Ray” is a template for what Britpop should have become if all those rowdy British lads hadn’t let the influence of The Stone Roses lapse far too early. “Almost Gold,” built on a seabed of feedback in the most beautiful sense, plays like an astrological prediction of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Communist Daughter” six years in advance.
Coming from a band as influential as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Honey’s Dead is unique in that it almost certainly didn’t push any buttons with the dominant songwriters who emerged in its wake. It lacks the rebel-without-a-cause angst of Psychocandy, the melodic majesty and soul of Darklands and the brash potency of Automatic. But it reveals that — beneath the fuck-all attitude of the Reid brothers — the Mary Chain was a subtle shape-shifter, remaining almost indistinguishable from its prior form while casually stumbling on the pulse of emerging trends before anyone else even had those trends on their radar.