“Here comes a storm,” Matt Elliott observes on the opening lyric of The Calm Before‘s eponymous track. With The Calm Before being the seventh album under the Matt Elliott name (Elliott’s early releases bear the Third Eye Foundation moniker) it’s surprising that only now does the British guitarist point the storm out. If one has paid any attention to the man’s career up until this point, the presence of storms is all but certain. Whether the storms are physical—“The Kursk”, the story of a doomed Russian submarine on 2005’s Drinking Songs—or emotional—the entirety of 2011’s chilling The Broken Man—Elliott always lets his audience know the turbulence ahead, and that he, for the umpteenth time, is going to have to bear it. “Some things are so dark that woe betide the light that shines on them,” Elliott sings on The Broken Man‘s “Dust, Flesh, and Bones”, his voice exhibiting a gravelly menace. Even though The Calm Before‘s brief opening piece (“A Beginning”) is in a major key and almost sunny, it’s difficult to avoid looking for the charcoal clouds forming in the music ahead.
Yet when Elliott sings, “Here comes a storm,” his voice carries no trace of the doom and gloom that has made up the bulk of his career as a solo artist. The key signature, C major, is also an unusual one for Elliott, whose songs typically occupy the morose territories of A minor and D minor. Elliott hasn’t taken on a cheery demeanor—even if he wanted to, his brooding bass vocals would probably make it sound sad anyways—but if the powerful crescendo of “The Calm Before” is any indication, he’s finally able to take on the storm without delving into the inky chasms of despair. It’s easy to imagine a twinkle in his eye as he announces the storm ahead.
The Calm Before‘s predecessor, 2013’s Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart, gave hints that Elliott’s songwriting was getting slightly less glum. The title itself is damn near optimistic compared to previous Elliott album titles like Drinking Songs and Failing Songs. Tracks like the waltz “Reap What You Sow” and the wistful “De Nada” hold up well to angsty tracks like “Prepare for Disappointment” and “Zugzwang”, allowing slight but distinct rays of light to peer through Elliott’s signature overcast. The music of Only Myocardial Infarction is also far more vivacious than any of its predecessors, due largely to Elliott’s usage of a full band, a contrasting move from the bare-to-the-bone The Broken Man.
Picking up from Only Myocardial Infarction‘s successes, Elliott hits it out of the park with The Calm Before. The sultry “I Only Wanted to Give You Everything” and the bleak “Feast of St. Stephen” are Elliott at his most familiar, though this is not to say the music is any weaker for it. “I Only Wanted to Give You Everything” is particularly effective for its repeated forlorn refrain – “But you don’t love me” – which builds to a wailing crescendo. With The Broken Man, Elliott authored his clearest statement of intent, breaking down his sound to its core scaffolding. Although Elliott later admitted that the record is too dark even for him, The Calm Before makes it clear why such an album was necessary in his career progression. With such strong rudiments to build from, Elliot was able to make The Calm Before and Only Myocardial Infarction as excellent as they are. The Songs trilogy (Drinking Songs, Failing Songs, and Howling Songs) may contain the bulk of Elliott’s classic tracks, but The Calm Before and its two predecessors prove that he is at his songwriting peak.
This holds the most true in the case of The Calm Before‘s cinematic title track, which stands out as Elliott’s best composition. He tried his hand at lengthier full-band composition with Only Myocardial Infarction‘s 17-minute “The Right to Cry”, a semi-successful piece that lacks a cohesive flow, feeling more like three separate songs conjoined together into one epic. By contrast, “The Calm Before” builds naturally to a dissonant, gorgeous conclusion, with wind sounds at the beginning of the tune giving way to squally distortion by the time the song reaches the final of its 14 minutes. Elliott guides the listener through the storm as he experiences it, painting a lovely sonic landscape with the intermixing of the fingerpicked guitar melody and his bass vocals. One can criticize Elliott for being unrepentantly depressive in much of his music, but “The Calm Before” is a reminder that there’s beauty in the rumble of a sky-grey storm, sunlight counterbalancing the mountainous clouds.
For all of its strengths, The Calm Before isn’t likely to bring new converts to Elliott’s side. Even those who like sad music are liable to find stretches of the album to be unforgivingly grim, as is the case for much of Elliott’s discography. But for those who are invested (or are willing to invest) in this underrated songwriter’s body of work, they will find that his music rewards over time, with gradient but important improvements becoming more apparent with each new release. Like fine whiskey, Elliott’s bitter music isn’t for everyone, but it does get better with age.
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