Once in a Lifetime
I could discern two kinds of Cardinal fans—the ones who hear what’s on the surface and think they’ve got it, and then there’s the ones who keep listening and start to discover the mystery of it, and I think they’re more rewarded. The fans who are a little mystified are our equals, because we don’t quite know how we did it either.
Davies’ puzzlement surrounding the Cardinal is understandable considering that he had reached a turning point just prior to the record’s completion in 1994. His previous band, the Moles, had taken him from his native Australia to the United States and on to England only to dissolve. However, Davies’ songwriting had grown leaps in this time, from meta post-punk conversations to orchestrated pop flirtations. Thus, that the band’s final album Instinct became a de facto solo record for the troubadour was appropriate. Chancing Eric Matthews—fresh out of school and driven by visions of intricately arranged instrumental music—along the road was fortuitous yet opportune. The intersection of the two through drummer Bob Fay was promising, to say the least; they spent their first day simply mapping out vocal parts, singing in octaves to Davies’ “Last Poems.” Although Fay soon left to join Sebadoh, Davies and Matthews seemed to be destined travel partners.
Although the journey proved brief, it produced a darling record that has finally been reissued (after going out-of-print) with all the appropriate trimmings (the original half hour of material has been doubled with bonuses). The duo’s combination of intelligent writing, inventive arrangement, and heartfelt performance was hardly a watershed moment in pop history, but has proven a salient one for the two. Davies brings a cinematic immediacy to his compositions by diving headfirst into the action and exploring each melodic vignette until its soonest resolution. For example, on “Big Mink” Davies begins with a lyric (as he oft does), an abstract statement at that, “Time will come and go / And it breeds a certain kind.” Building on this refrain, he creates a sense of forward movement and of quick maturation that blossoms within three minutes, “Time will come and go / And it breeds a certain mind / But why couldn’t you see that it needs a certain kind / And I walked a million miles / To try.” Within such craft, Matthews embellishes these guitar and piano pop scenes with just the necessary amount of orchestration, adding movement and drama to oblique narratives. In this manner, he finds constant complements: string harmonies to move the second verse and chorus, a strong backbeat for “walking a million miles”, and minor key guitar riffing to weigh down “something so sad.” The sum of these efforts is that Cardinal continues to be held as a benchmark for both artists.
The original record’s continued appeal stems from its unique sense of album-craft. Davies employs his entire palette to paint disparate images: the album moves from the clean lines of “If You Believe in Christmas Trees” to the attractive grain of “Tough Guy Tactics.” Indeed, Matthews plays a crucial role in building bridges both within and between each song: his mini-fanfares on “Christmas Trees” parallel Davies’ highly articulate melodies, while his waltzing instrumental “Public Melody #1” provides both a sharp contrast and a moment of respite. However, the seamless fusion of the pair’s respective talents on tracks like “Silver Machines” is what makes Cardinal so exceptional. While Davies immediately engages with his synthesis of familiar elements—T. Rex vocals, Lennon/McCartney melodies, and a dash of punk sass—Matthews adds negative Spector space with his subtle flourishes, like a patient bass to take the song to bed. In this manner, each song is fleshed out with little fuss, complete yet continually revealing.
While much has been made of whether Davies and Matthews have gone on to produce comparable material, the reissue featured here thankfully realigns the focus on Cardinal as a unique occurrence. In addition to the original LP, Cardinal is now bolstered with a b-side, outtakes, and demos, the last of which especially helps provide a more complete picture of the genius behind the duo’s arrangement process. This comparison is exemplified in the versions of “You’ve Lost Me There.” Even as a curiously breezy acoustic guitar and bass demo, the vocals are carefully arranged and each part handily crafted so that the song seemed destined to be a centerpiece, the “Good Vibrations” of the record. The final draft is instrumentally distant, with its Oh! You Pretty Things at Closing Time sound, but deeply in harmonic and structural debt to the demo. In addition to a deft cover of a post-Bryan MacLean Love tune, “Willow Willow”, this reissue provides the dedicated listener with several opportunities to expand their understanding.
To this day, Davies remains understated about Cardinal. He chalks up the chemistry between Matthews and him to merely being “fools for music.” The modesty of the recording—lead voices frequently fall behind the full music track—supports this idea, and lends Cardinal more of a labor of love than masterpiece quality. However, a sense of joy over sheer music-making permeates the record. Like a new relationship in its honeymoon phase, Davies and Matthews explored their then-current potential in an unwitting manner. Now, listeners have a second chance to marvel and marvel and marvel at this rare sighting.