The thirtieth anniversary of the third and final album from The Sisters of Mercy passed quietly on the 22nd October. Sadly it’s the latest in a long line of dismissals for the outsider album that simply can’t compete with the icy arrogance of Floodland or the legendary goth-rock pioneer that was First and Last and Always.
Approaching Vision Thing can be a challenge – do we take it as read that it was Andrew Eldritch’s ongoing parody of rock’n’roll, now embracing the gung-ho faux metal style of the late Eighties? Early guitarist Ben Gunn scorned the Paramount Leader’s attitude of “taking the piss” and departed in 1983, so was he onto something?
Is Vision Thing a subtle and wry jab in the kidneys to the American Dream of George H.W. Bush’s neocon United States? Or is it a cynical move to appeal to the burgeoning American market from a jaded mastermind exercising complete creative control?
Difficult to say, and your mileage may vary. A key characteristic of The Sisters of Mercy is the total inscrutability of their motives and meanings, and indeed considering them as a plural at all would be a misdirection – since its formation the band has been merely a vehicle for the vision of Andrew von Eldritch. His caustic and combative attitude to the music press, his rarefied commentary hidden behind his lyrics, all combine to cloak the goals and game plan of the band entirely.
So we must consider this album as it is presented to us, an eight-track rock and roll rollercoaster that discards much of the brooding and bombast of its predecessors. As per usual, Eldritch has assembled a new lineup of ‘hired guns’ for recording, with iconic bassist Patricia Morrison discharged from duties under a cloud of undisclosed hostility that remains unexplored to date.
Later interviews with newcomer guitarist Andreas Bruhn and black sheep bassist Tony James very much imply a scenario of soldiers following orders from Field-Marshal Spiggy, echoing the obsessive controlling nature that produced First and Last and Always.
So these songs must have sprung fully-formed from the brow of Eldritch, and there are some undisputed gems amongst them. The album starts with an absolute crash of energy, the title track a snarled anthem of hate for American neoimperialism as the Soviet Union begins to crumble. Vision Thing the song has remained a bastion of encores at Sisters gigs for years, decades since it first came out and is a standout example of Von’s ability to write a rock’n’roll song as good as the favourite funereal dirges of earlier releases.
Then, a contrast that sincerely lends weight to the argument that Eldritch has composed a truly supercillous album – the raw foreboding of Ribbons, one of the finest songs on the album if not in the entire Sisters arsenal. A hybrid of Vision Thing’s shrieking guitar riff style and that trademark Sisters sound of black-as-night, slow paced sex-and-death brooding, Ribbons for me is the perfect marrying of the new and the old. A perfect gateway into this unusual album that splits its style like it splits its audience.
As a whole, listening to Vision Thing is very much listening to a songwriter who seems consumed with bitterness, regret, and loss. There’s the freewheeling irresponsibility of Detonation Boulevard, embracing your flight reflex and disregarding the consequences. There’s the wounded heart of Something Fast and When You Don’t See Me, a spurned lover estranged from human interaction and wandering through grief.
With Doctor Jeep, Von and the band return to their scathing attacks on contemporary Western politics at a frenetic pace with an MTV-friendly video that is either a shameless cash-in or another knowing wink from the cynical Wizard behind the curtain of mockery. Or both!
Vision Thing begins to wrap up with the frankly overblown More, another production from Jim Steinman (the maestro behind This Corrosion from the last album), a driving soft-metal track of urgent need and hunger with shadowy implications of prostitution – and dig into the band’s history to see how Eldritch likes to play with such imagery. Overall though, it’s a lazily-produced by-the-numbers rock anthem that seems to have become the lead single for no other reason than being a safe bet.
The final track for the album is the mournful I Was Wrong, an excrutiating self-flagellation that is entirely out of sorts for such a private and evasive songwriter. It actually feels slightly embarassing to hear, like pages from a secret diary suddenly laid bare…
In a bar that’s always closing
In a world where people shout
I don’t wanna talk this over
I don’t wanna talk it out
I was quite impressed until I hit the floor
Isn’t that what friends are for?
Pain looks great on other men
That’s what they’re for
I absolutely adore it, for what it’s worth.
And so we conclude Vision Thing, very much a contradiction in terms as an album. Half soft-metal anthems, half soulful anti-lovesongs. Biting political commentary one moment, lashings of self-recrimination the next. Eldritch keeping the world under a scathing microscope, then drawing it close for heartfelt confessions. A calculated move on the US music market, or a duplicitious attempt to lure MTV in and then destroy them?
The final studio album from the arch-controller of gothic rock, Vision Thing continues to divide fans, but in comparison always lags behind its definitive older siblings in the discography on fan polls. A mystery, a curiosity, a strange jumble of classic Sisters anthems and understated, half-remembered personal yearnings that never quite break the surface.Tracks like Alice, Marian or This Corrosion are more ‘definitive’ songs by The Sisters of Mercy but the last time I saw the band play, the entirety of Vision Thing was performed to an appreciative audience. No other album earns this honour.
As their final release (compilation albums and remixes notwithstanding) should this be their legacy? We recall that Von promised another album should Donald Trump take the US Presidency back in 2016, and it would have seemed so appropriate to unleash Vision Thing II on the new American ‘circus’. Instead, The Sisters of Mercy went even further underground, and leaving us even more bereft of hope for a new album.
So it seems the band’s story ends with this unusual and divisive album, now three decades old. A suitable ending for an unscrutable outfit.
If you’re hungry for more Vision Thing check out “On The Record, Off The Cuff” podcast, where I discuss the album alongside members of The Sisters of Murphy – the premier UK tribute to TSOM!
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