Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Ministry were one of the most aggressive, and interesting industrial acts America had to offer. Classic albums like “The Land Of Rape and Honey” and “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” are staples in the genre. Much later in their career, Ministry went from being industrial to flirting with the heavy metal scene and the band’s founder Al Jourgensen’s is famous for his outspoken opinion on Right Wing politics, the industrial music scene, and life in general, making him and this band one of the most interesting acts to follow.
It’s no secret that Ministry’s first few records featured less industrial and aggression, leaning more on the experimental side, but what about their debut album? For years, Jourgensen has had plenty of horrible things to say about his debut record “With Sympathy” from saying that it’s “an abortion” all the way to claiming that if he ever seen it in anyone’s record collection, he would smash it and them. Whatever the case, he is pretty passionate about his bitter hatred for the record. Why? Is it really that bad? He had written and performed all of the songs on the album and it was released through a major label that helped skyrocketed his career. What makes Al Jourgensen treat this album like such a dirty secret? Let’s have a listen and find out!
Upon the first track the biggest noticeable difference between “With Sympathy” and the rest of Ministry’s records, is the fact that it is NOT an industrial album, or even a ‘rock’ record. It’s pop. Yes you read that write. The debut album from Ministry, the band responsible for albums like “Filth Pig” and “Dark Side Of The Spoon” is in fact a pop record. A new wave, synth pop album no less.
Ministry were no strangers to electronic music, before the early 90s, their albums featured guitars but also huge synthetic drums, midi sequencers, keyboards, and studio-crafted loops but even with all of that digital instrumentation, they maintained a certain, dangerous edge that was both brooding and aggressive. “With Sympathy” sounds more like a mixture of Depeche Mode meets Missing Persons. With that said, this album isn’t a bubblegum pop standard or anything, there is still an ominous dark streak that runs throughout the track listing. Most notably the most popular single “Revenge” which features a dark, synth groove and an angry vocal performance from Jourgensen telling a story of infidelity, lies, and vengeance, making it the stand out track in the entire record and the one that most Ministry fans remember.
Another distracting aspect of the album is Jourgensen’s faux-English accent. Being raised in Chicago, it makes one scratch their head how he managed to pick up such a distinguishable accent, but turns out, Al Jourgensen claims that the main reason why he sports the accent was because he was a fan of the genre of music and that’s how most artists sounded. He seen no problem using the accent in his music much like most European artists tend to put on an American accent with their music.
So we’ve established that “With Sympathy” is a synth-pop record that sounds nothing like what the band would sound like just a few short years down the road but we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of why Al Jourgensen hates it so much. Could it be the cheesy, lovey dovey lyrics of “What He Say” or the overly synthetic, glittery pop of “I Wanted To Tell Her”? Turns out, the biggest reason why he hates the album so much, is the fact that Arista Records took it upon themselves to doctor up the mix and releasing the album without getting final approval from Al Jourgensen himself.
In 1981, Jourgensen and bandmate Stephen George, recorded and released a 4-track home demo through the Chicago based indie label Wax Trax! Records which gained the attention of Arista Records. Once the band signed a contract with the label, they began work on what would become “With Sympathy”. Throughout the recording process, the label executives demanded the band ‘lighten’ their sound up to appeal to a larger pop audience to the dismay of Al and Stephen. By the time the record was released in early 1983, Al was outraged that sometime before the release, Aristia brought in a group of studio musicians and went over his head in tampering with the songs. Editing the length of some, removing instruments in others, and even reworking a few of the songs leaving only the vocals in tact.
Despite the indifference from Jourgensen, “With Sympathy” was successful. The singles “Revenge” and “Work For Love” got plenty of radio play as well as popularity in dance clubs across the country. Even the record was successful, Jourgensen always felt it was Arista’s album and not his due to all the reworking. Obviously it was the only Ministry release through Arista.
I understand where Jourgensen is coming from though, it’s one thing to play well with others who are trying to make a dollar with your art, but it’s another to re-work what is yours, into something that doesn’t resemble anything of the original. Worst of all, the reworked songs weren’t even released as singles, making the entire fiasco seem more like a power struggle than a business decision.
Listening to the record today it’s painfully obvious that it’s dated and stale by today’s standards. Other than a few tracks, the majority of the album is really nothing special and largely forgettable. When it does work, it works well. “Work For Love” might be synthetic and 80s club to a fault, but lyrically, it’s still the moody, angry, Al Jourgensen fans fell in love with a few years later. Most of the songs on “With Sympathy” deal with the dark side of relationships. The aforementioned “Revenge” and “Work For Love” are not made of what your usual dance club songs ingredients and lyrically not far off from what the band would later become. they are bitter, resentful and sound as if the narrative are premeditating something heinous. “She’s Got A Cause” is another favorite of mine because of Jourgensen’s articulacy of dealing with falling in love with someone who couldn’t care less, is spot on that it’s almost painful. Even in the band’s infancy, Ministry were destined for popularity among the social misfits. This song alone, proves that.
“With Sympathy” may not be Ministry’s finest moment but it most certainly isn’t their worst (their cover of Amy Whinehouse’s “Rehab” takes home that award) and despite all of the outsourcing Arista did with the mix, there’s nothing that Al Jourgensen should be ashamed of. Then again, that could very well be part of the schtick puts on to be entertaining. There is a certain expectation that comes with Ministry. We all want them to be angry, anti-Republican, loud, violent, and aggressive, and anyone who is all of those things, would probably hate “With Sympathy” right? In recent years, Jourgensen has turned the hatred down a few notches when it comes to the record and has even been on the record for saying that he is not embarrassed by the sound or genre of the album, just the way it was handled. Further proving that fact, recently he released a ‘new'(yet clearly remixed) previously unheard song from the “With Sympathy” sessions called “Anything For You” that not only features the infamous faux accent, cheesy synth licks, laughable 80s lyrics, but it’s also just might be the best song released by Ministry in years! All from a guy who claimed to have burned all of the master tapes of the record.
Whatever the case, “With Sympathy” is worthy of it’s spot in Ministry’s roster regardless of how Al Jourgensen feels (or pretends to feel) about it. There are some great songs that are a notch about a lot of popular songs in the early 80s synth-pop genre, and a few more that wouldn’t sound too much out of place in later Ministry releases after some reworking. We may never see the band perform these songs live, but with the release of that new old song recently, I think ol’ Uncle Al may be warming up to revisiting that era of his career with a little less resentment and a little more sympathy.
On a side note, a few years back I did a mini-review of the song “Revenge” as well as commentary for the music video along with some of my thoughts on that era of the band. Check out that short review if you are interested in hearing more of my thoughts on selective memory. cheers!