Posthumous album shines light on darkness
It happened so suddenly. A rare album announcement from the woman most famous for lighting vocal fireworks under Weatherall’s production on Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ and for a long partnership with A Certain Ratio.
The artwork had popped up everywhere, particularly if you were plugged into Manchester Twitter: Johnson’s shadowed face close to the camera, yet distanced behind a screen that would have been invisible save for ribbons of glistening raindrops. And then she was gone. From out of nowhere, Denise Johnson died. The artwork became as unbearably poignant as the question posed by the title. Where indeed does life go.
Such loss inevitably reframes a work that was originally intended partly as a paeon to Manchester music. Her torchsong take on New Order’s ‘True Faith’ sets the tone: understated guitar, softly layered vocals, very few frills. There’s also The Smiths, pleasingly showcased with album track ‘Well I Wonder’ rather than a big single, and an almost choral version of ‘I’m Not In Love’ that turns 10cc’s conflicted denial into an unrequited wail into the ether – listen to the heartbreak of that Hammond organ. There are other local references too. The memorable and soaring album highlight ‘Evangeline’ written by Simon Aldred from Bolton’s Cherry Ghost and a rambunctious Ellie Greenwich cover that recalls Johnson’s role in the 2006 theatre production ‘Manchester Passion’.
Yet despite these “mad for it” overtones evoking flashbacks to many a lost club night partying to Johnson’s dancier work, it’s worth reiterating that this album is simply acoustic guitar, her distinctive vocal and a cavern of reverberating space. There’s not a single shape-throwing face-gurning 303 in sight. Her partner on this record, guitarist Thomas “Twem” Twemlow, knows exactly when to hold back, which is most of the time because of the sheer strength of her voice. Johnson’s own songs here burst with bluesy fire thanks to the leeway allowed by Twem’s sparse production.
This is not an album just about a city or about electronic music history. It’s about the woman in the picture, speckled with rain. It is about hearing, amid the roomy acoustics, the echo of a life lost far too soon.