A very poignant plague
These days, melancholic singer/songwriters seem to be emerging at a rapid pace. With great artists like Passenger and Greg Laswell expressing bare sentiments through wonderfully arranged music, the genre is as ripe and rewarding as ever. On his second LP, Bloodlines, Londoner James Mathé (aka Barbarossa) earns his place alongside his contemporaries, as he bleeds his heart and bares his soul with grace and fragility at every turn. It’s a thoroughly touching record.
Mathé first broke onto the scene in 2008 with his well received debut, Chemical Campfires, which featured a lot of acoustic guitar. In comparison, he sees Bloodlines as a reinvention in which keyboards, drum machines, and analog synths play a larger role and help him bring “elegiac electronic anthems, dusted with huge spectral gasps of reverb and soul-wrenching organ melodies”, to life. In addition, the album was inspired by some very diverse influences, including Massive Attack, Pharrell Williams, Sufjan Stevens, Jurassic 5, and Vincent Gallo’s film Buffalo 66.
The album opens with weepy organ, subtle beats, and Mathé’s fragile voice, recalling the forlorn creations of the great Neverending White Lights. Lyrically, he discusses how fear and aversion to challenges will keep you from feeling hope, which is a universal and stirring sentiment. It’s a fantastic way to start. “Turbine” is next, and it’s essentially an electro-rock jam with occasional phrases. Actually, it sounds a bit like a lost Portugal. The Man track. Freer and more energetic than its predecessor, it reveals a new side to Mathé’s artistry.
With its entrancing verse and simple yet catching chorus, “Butterfly Plague” is easily one of the best songs here. The way it builds from lone percussion to a luscious, dreamy, aural landscape is magnificent, as is the way his pained voice brings each poignant word to life. Mathé effectively condenses the entire emotional spectrum that accompanies loss and longing into this track, which is a masterful achievement. “Pagliaccio”, by contrast, is danceable and relatively upbeat, with programmed rhythms taking center stage.
Later on, “S.I.H.F.F.Y.” is purposefully drawn out, like a requiem about forgiveness and selflessness. It’s profound yet sparse, allowing the listener to get lost in its world. The album’s lead single, “The Load”, deserves favor due to its gripping backing track that once again blends electronic and rock timbres with bittersweet melodies, creating a devastating combination. There’s also “Saviour Self”, a waltz featuring a retro guitar arpeggio and plenty of valuable space. It’s very atmospheric, as is the closing duo of “The Endgame” and “Seeds”. Both are fairly straightforward, but they’re still quite heartfelt and calming.
As reserved as it is remorseful and romantic, Bloodlines is a moving, grand achievement. While its bleakness and somber arrangements may not appeal to everyone (especially those looking for a superficially uplifting experience), it’s precisely these elements that make it so special. Mathé gets right to the center of heartache, insecurity, and the like with sophistication and assurance, crafting a refined collection of sorrowful yet beautiful recollections and lessons that should not be missed.