'New Atom Mine'
I think David Thomas has made an extraordinary contribution to art rock, and in some respects also to the progress of western music. There are some aspects of his output though which are primarily unique to himself.
‘The New Atom Mine’ is credited to Thomas, Thompson, Fier and Greaves. It is the fifth and final song on side one of Sound of the Sand in the original vinyl release, where we find the following explanation of the song: ‘This song does not toast The Physicist as an individual or a class. Rather, it’s an expression of appreciation for the publishing of exciting information.’ (There’s another song with an explanation – ‘Man’s Best Friend’ – which I’ll get to in a few weeks).
No doubt there was a bit of hair-tearing at Rough Trade when this song was put forward for inclusion on the album, for the song does appear somewhat in praise of the ‘physicist/Working in the Fermi Lab,’ although some might have been assured that the description of the physicist humming ‘like a jolly (or ‘merry’) loon’ is not exactly an endorsement of his mental state.
The dangers of nuclear research and the weapons that may be developed from them were on everyone’s mind at this time. 1981 was the year of the infamous Greenham Common protests – though the activities surrounding Greenham Common did not begin until September, after recording on Sound of the Sand had concluded.
The Fermilab (the album’s sleeve notes present it as two words, which is fair since it named for physicist Enrico Fermi, but as far as I can tell, also wrong) was established in the late 1960s for the study of particle physics. It is six hours’ drive west of Thomas’ hometown of Cleveland, OH, and just outside Chicago. By some accounts, a town called Weston voted itself out of existence – just as a developer was poised to create a new suburban landscape there – to make way for the new complex (http://www.wbez.org/bey/2010/07/weston-il-how-nuclear-research-and-the-mob-stopped-a-suburb-from-getting-built/31190). I mention this only as background for anyone who might wish to contemplate why Thomas chose ‘the Fermi Lab’ as the place to set his song. The song itself gives limited detail. Instead, it talks about odd concepts such as the ‘Atom Mine’ (what it is about the lab that makes it a ‘mine’?).
The music on this track is rambling and linear; it is almost certainly an example of a jammed backing created more for the sake of Richard Thompson’s guitar improvisation than anything else, with Thomas no doubt writing his part to suit later in the piece. Presumably the participants were all surprised by the song’s subject matter and focus – probably when they got their copy of the album. Thompson’s guitar has a slightly ‘oriental’ feel (I lack the musical smarts to know exactly what that constitutes, but I know it when I hear it) which nevertheless has no bearing on the song’s subject matter.
One element of this track which resonates with Thomas’ next album (Winter Comes Home) is the portion, towards the end, when he obfuscates about ending the song and leaving the physicist alone in his lab. He suggests it’s late and time to go, asks the physicist if there’s anything he needs, and then encourages two children (surely, Thomas’ voice sped up?) to also say goodbye. This is absurdist comedy, and it is another example of the way in which the song hints at the notion of addressing an unpalatable issue, such as nuclear physics, and then discombobulates it – as do Thomas’ nutty professor noises, also at the close of the track. Thomas was 28 in 1981 time; he was already well into playing the part of someone much older.
‘New Atom Mine’ is a slippery piece of work. It seems to be saying something about work and human endeavor. It sidesteps any concerns about the use and abuse of such endeavor, and in that sense it could almost be considered a rather cowardly poke at an issue that many felt was the single most important issue of the day and a matter of life and death. Then again, I generally feel that Thomas is probably smarter than that, and perhaps it is inappropriate to use a word like ‘cowardly’ here. After all, he is discussing a world of research removed from the everyday, in which the scientist is both hard-working and in pursuit of a knowledge the outcomes of which neither he nor anyone can control.
In 1978 Thomas told Jon Savage, speaking of Pere Ubu, that ‘Our job is to make music as a steelmaker’s is to…whatever his particular function is. What’s the difference? We just happen to deal with different media, with a different sort of raw material.’ (in Sounds 20 May 1978 and reprinted in Savage, Time Travel Random House London 1997, p. 75). There may be a reading in which Thomas himself is the scientist and/or worker at the heart of the song and the construction of the song – true, the music does sound somewhat laboriously mechanistic – is an example of his process. That’s pretty reflexive. It makes sense, though. And while there is not much to be said about the idea of a ‘New Atom Mine’, particularly as there is nothing said in the lyrics about its ‘newness,’ it’s surely worth drawing some conclusions from the similarity to the title New Picnic Time; to the unpalatability, for some, of the final track on that album (‘Jehovah’s Kingdom Come’, later retitled as ‘Hand a Face a Feeling’) and the overall weirdness of both new picnics and atoms.
In the final analysis my feeling is that this song is not entirely successful as a piece of music; it’s altogether shambolic and Thomas’ repetitive and obtuse lyric doesn’t quite pull the thing together as anyone might have hoped. The reference to nuclear technology doesn’t help. That said, it’s another example of a Thomas song I can instantly summon to mind at any time; it is, almost despite itself, catchy and its quirks are value-adds.