The Jam just need a more modern telling.
It helps to have a standard narrative. It makes stories easier to tell if you already know them. Some of that thinking must have applied to the response to the Jam’s 1977 This Is the Modern World. Six months earlier, the group had released debut album In the City, a critical darling that fit in nicely with the UK punk scene and the burgeoning mod revival. With a hit record out (the debut reached #20 in the UK charts), the band needed to rush a follow-up. The resulting album This Is the Modern World gets cast as the epitome of the sophomore slump, not disastrous, but certainly not up to standard. That the band would expand its sound and release a series of more successful albums only reinforced the point.
That version of history doesn’t make much sense, though, because it gives too much praise to the debut simply for being first and it marks too much of a gap between Modern World and its successor All Mod Cons. The Jam’s first two albums make a fine pair, the though the second release remains more listenable. In the City‘s “Batman” cover comes across like a tired joke, the Jam’s indebtedness to the Who coming across as strongly in that choice as in their actual sound (as an aside, Link Wray had already covered the TV theme in the 1970s, too). “In the Midnight Hour” from Modern World harkens back to the mod love of US R&B, but the Jam pull it off. Traditional narrative aside, All Mod Cons doesn’t really advance the band. It closes with a couple fantastic cuts – “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” one of the band’s finest moments – but its other highlight is another cover, the Kinks’ “David Watts.” Although all three of the Jam’s first albums succeed, Modern World gets dismissed for no clear reasons, other than not being first (and, now, for not being those later albums that move away from the punk core).
To the album itself, it opens with one of the band’s best singles, “The Modern World.” Paul Weller is angry and brutal, but still gives the song an unforgettable hook to go with its attitude. “Standards” likewise offers a revolution, but it has a smart critique of its own proposed violence and maintains its relevance. Weller may have been writing quickly in the late 1970s, but he wasn’t writing carelessly. The band continues to tighten; their fierceness disavows any notion of this one being tossed off simply for the label to have a follow-up.
The band shows its strengths with “The Combine.” The cut sounds a little chipper, its busyness creating the feeling of a nice day out in the crowd that Weller sings about, but his lyrics get claustrophobic as he becomes ensnared in his misanthropic surroundings. He recognizes the possibility of escape within the very crowd he wishes to avoid, but all his meditations only lead him back to the dangers of communal self-destruction. Bruce Foxton’s bass provides perfect support to Weller’s vocals, while drummer Rick Buckler both creates and releases tension, occasionally matching the vocal part and occasionally trying to push the singer somewhere else.
The album does have its imperfections: Foxton’s “Don’t Tell Them You’re Sane” never finds the weight it wants to have and “Here Comes the Weekend” never decides what it is, mixing politics, philosophy and youthful entertainment. A few moments aside, though, This Is the Modern World holds up at least as well as the albums that came before and after it. Initial critical reaction seemed to want something more than what it is: a very good mod-punk record from a band heading toward its peak. Time should have been kinder to the album, but it may be that old stories are hard to escape. The Jam just need a more modern telling.