Matt Pond is a wealth of late night truisms. Emblems, the new release by the band that bears his name—Matt Pond PA—lushly documents this fact in Pond’s early morning sandpapery croon like a sweater clings to a cold body: “There’s no way to the heart better than awkwardly”; “There is danger even in the simple word hello”; “Half of our lives are spent encouraged by embarrassment”; “Don’t try to defy the properties of your decisions”. Emblems is scattered with such internal revelations, embedded in the band’s trademark snug chamber pop.
Pond is like the college student to Joe Pernice’s professor, with less internalized fatalism and more emotional impressionism. Born in New Hampshire, Pond spent eight years living in Philadelphia (hence the PA), developing an endearing catalog of folk-mope songs with the bouquet of an unplugged Buffalo Tom. Emblems (the follow-up to 2002’s The Nature of Maps) feels like the band’s big bid for widespread appeal and acceptance; it’s baffling that these songs aren’t all over the radio. The songs all work towards a cohesive statement of existential heartache, using recurring motifs of rivers, blood, lights that illuminate the darkness, and nature. The album maintains a consistent vibe of humming neon lights in the early morning darkness, but unfortunately not every song works individually. Matt Pond PA’s formula—a search for emotional rescue via Pond’s reedy rasp, propulsive drumbeats, and Eve Miller’s rich cello arrangements—is amiable at the album’s outset, but it wears thin mid-way through.
It all starts out strong enough. “KC” purrs with a lucid hypnotism, Pond’s one-note guitar strum leading the way for the band to open the floodgates. Pond’s voice aches with the scent of whiskey and cigarettes, sending the song’s oblique imagery into some kind of resonance: “The truth is behind the hotel / The body’s underneath the maple tree / The leaves turned red when you killed me”. The jangle of co-mingling acoustics and electrics provides familiar, sweet support for the melody in “Lily Two”, the album’s most engaging, straight-ahead track: “At the top of your voice there is no doing wrong I swear / Lily you be just who you are”. “Closest” is a voluptuous slice of angelic pop, an intricate, densely produced song with layers upon layers of sound. “The requests have all been effected,” Pond discerns over the insistent, shimmering drive, “With distortion and a hiss that’s not detected”. “Closest” sounds destined for inclusion on your local AC station’s afternoon drive; more than any other song on the album, it’s arranged, mixed, mastered, and smothered with gloss. This track not only has potential as a hit, but it could also isolate some of the band’s more organically inclined fan base. “New Hampshire” arrives during Emblems’ middle lull; despite some occasional affecting lines (“I’m so determined / To lay in lakes and see my sisters / I will hit my brother and hold my mother”), at five minutes long, the tune’s kinda yawn-inducing. “The Butcher” and “Summer (Butcher Two)” place too much emphasis on lazy strumming and neglect the songs’ potential for strong melodies. The weaker songs sound really good, but they’re rendered uninteresting by the repetitions that Emblems perpetuates.
“While there’s nothing to confess,” Pond admits in “New Hampshire”, “Please pay attention.” Not such a difficult request to obey when Emblems effortlessly sucks you into its world and illuminates your own. If only that request didn’t feel like a mere suggestion by the album’s end.