Justify Your Shitty Taste: Ministry’s With Sympathy

Quick quiz: Who wrote the following lyrics?

“Not a language of the mouth
It’s only for the feet
Grab a Russian by the hands
And he will feel the need
That’s right!”

Was it:

  1. Limahl of Kajagoogoo
  2. Mark Almond of Soft Cell
  3. Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive
  4. Al Jourgensen

If you answered number four you are correct. The lyrics are from “What He Say,” the most archetypal 80s synthpop number to appear on Ministry’s 1983 debut With Sympathy. While derided by Jourgensen and some fans With Sympathy contains some of Al’s most iconic songs and tips the hat to what followed in his still evolving career.

With Sympathy needs defending, mainly because Al – called Alain during the earliest parts of his career – has said in half the interviews in ensuing years that it’s the nadir of his catalog, an album so bad it should be scrubbed from the discography. In his 2013 memoir he described the hell of quasi-pop stardom during the With Sympathy tour: “We opened for the Police, Madness, Culture Club, Flock of Seagulls and Depeche Mode. Audiences seemed to like us, but most of the headliners wouldn’t talk to us, and I hated every fucking minute because I despised the music I was forced to make. And somehow I was still broke.”

The story is that Arista management pressured a young Jourgensen into recording a synthpop album in the style of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Culture Club. Much of that pressure came from vampiric A&R rep Clive Davis; Jourgensen says Davis promised he could make Ministry the next Joy Division. Uncle Al adopted a fake English accent and paraded around like a proud cockatoo encouraging his crowds to dance, years before he terrified and frazzled Lollapalooza audiences.

Despite the back history and Al’s ill-advised adopted accent — about as convincing as the college exchange student who returns from Ireland with a brogue — With Sympathy is nowhere near the disaster most claim. In fact, a majority of the album is brilliant and contains several songs that are as iconic as “NWO” and  “Jesus Built My Hotrod.” Even with talk of label pressures – that this album was the product of industry manipulation – these songs were all written by Jourgensen. They are some of his most infectious, if not heaviest.

With Sympathy opens with synth pop perfection; “I’m Not An Effigy,” a song about loneliness and isolation that would conceptually fit on later Ministry albums. The second track “Revenge” – about making an unnamed tormentor pay – is a standard three-plus decades later on Goth and dark wave playlists. “You did it again,” Al says angrily in the chorus, and we can feel his desire to choke the life out of his unnamed tormentor. The song is Jourgensen’s Cask Of Amontillado; the story of an outwardly meek and inwardly aggrieved narrator burying his nemesis in a wine vault and telling the tale. It’s the pop industrial version of the Junior Wells blues standard “Messin’ With The Kid,” a timeless tale of striking back.

Things take a poppy turn with “I Wanted To Tell Her,” the album’s lead single and a male-female vocal duel: Alain vs. chanteuse Shay Jones.  Now, this song is in no way heavy – it’s like a darker shade of Bow Wow Wow. But admit it, the shit is catchy, and Al wears a Boy George Culture club style cap on the 45! “Work For Love” – a song that is probably better known by certain listening subsets than Al’s 90s catalog – is pop perfection Ministry style: the right sampling of synths, Al whispering the phrase …”for love” and big choruses. Plenty of you will claim to hate this song; none of the critics will write a song nearly as good. “Said I’d work for nothing at all/If I just could take you home…” Yup, we’ve all felt that checking out that person at the office who won’t acknowledge our presence.

Of all the songs “What He Say,” is the most incongruous; there’s not the hint of Jourgensen’s later work in here and the “tribal” voices peppering the chorus belong in the Jumanji soundtrack. And yet, when Al says  “Let’s dance!” you can’t help but see yourself doing the white man’s overbite in front of the homecoming court. The album once again strays to darker material with “Say You’re Sorry.” The presentation includes a saxophone solo and describes a failed relationship in battle terms, with talks of truce and white flags.  “She’s Got a Cause,” is sort of like “Revenge,” with a lighter feel, a perfect bridge to Twitch and the madness that followed.

Many listeners will never embrace With Sympathy, particularly with Jourgensen’s disparaging comments. They believe that Ministry started with The Land Of Rape And Honey and that the earliest works are best forgotten. And yet, With Sympathy has all the things that make Ministry powerful: anger, deception, confusion and ennui. It’s just more of the sugar and less of the hammer. It’s also ample proof that a great songwriter can work with different canvases; even with the talk of label meddling and pressure the best moments of With Sympathy work because they unmistakably come from Alain – er, Al – Jougensen. You can’t defend With Sympathy as a metal record but try mounting a convincing argument that it’s not a great album.