Somewhere along the way, Matt Hales seems to have lost something.
I first heard him two albums ago, back when he was just finding his way into the major label American market by compiling his two brilliant little UK albums into one beautiful little something he called Strange and Beautiful. It was an apt description; even besides the fact that the song from which the compilation drew its title was Hales’ biggest claim to fame at the time due to its association with an auto advertisement, there truly seemed to be no other way to describe his musical output. Here was a singer-songwriter who seemed to find space in the most perfect places, who valued silence as much as he valued his own voice. It was a rare thing, yet one that was easy to appreciate if you were in the right mood.
Perhaps that’s the case with Words and Music; perhaps I, tasked with reviewing Hales’ latest opus, simply haven’t been in the right mood for it. Of course, that may well be because it’s awfully difficult to figure out what the right mood is when you’re talking about something that comes off as so ... well, so ordinary.
That sense of ordinary-ness (ordinarity?) has worked in Hales’ favor until now. His voice is a little broken, opting for a cracked whisper in favor of a vibrato-laden shout when he moves into his higher register, and sometimes comes off as little more than a tuneful croak when he goes down low—but again, in a good way. It’s a voice that humanizes Hales, that puts him alongside us, telling us tales of love lost, won, and lost again even as the winning still sounds like it’s drowning in a pint in a smoky little pub. And yet, the music that he’s chosen to put that voice alongside alienates us from him right off the bat. “7 Keys” is full up with acoustic guitar, organs, a slow, strolling swing of a beat and a little bit of twangy slide guitar garnish between the sung bits. It’s as if he’s trying to be forthright with his feelings, offering up such awkward symbolism as “You hold the seven keys to my heart” as if it’s somehow deeper than middle school poetry. “All right,” we say, “we get it. Your heart is impossibly locked away (hence seven locks to be opened), and only she can open it.” All the while, we’re thinking that it sounds like some kind of overwrought plot to a bad adventure movie.
So it goes. Covering Paul Simon is a good choice for Hales, and he does a fine if unspectacular job with “Slip Sliding Away”, making it sound an awful lot as if he wrote the thing; if you didn’t know the original, you’d be hard pressed to find the Paul Simon song in this bunch. “Mr. Universe” sees Hales branching out a bit with a cockeyed, tipsy song about ego, and “Everything Changed” finds a perfectly maudlin melody for a perfectly maudlin lyric. It all passes unassumingly enough, but caution must be taken to avoid listening too hard lest you risk inescapable boredom.
At least, that’s the case until the final three tracks, the songs where Hales finally finds the voice that made his early work so successful.
“When I Finally Get My Own Place” finally drops the pretenses of the first seven tracks and tells an unassuming little story about exactly what the title says. This is what Hales excels at, telling small stories that mean something bigger, something a little more than he’s offering, where he never stoops to outlining exactly what he’s trying to say. “Nothing Else Matters” is the best melody on the album, and Hales’ delivery is sublime, while “Arrivals” is quiet and honest-to-God patient enough to actually make you think starting the album over again might be a good idea.
Don’t fall for it! The first 70% of the album doesn’t really get better, though if you were keen on Aqualung in the first place, the last three songs might make the whole thing worth a purchase. If you’ve never heard him, though, there are better places to start. Words and Music is largely the sound of an artist falling into a creative rut and trying a little too desperately to get out of it, sacrificing that which made his music special in the first place.