For his American debut, Syd Matters (a.k.a. Jonathan Morali), a French singer-songwriter in the folky tradition of, you guessed it, Nick Drake, has gone for a compilation of his first two European releases, A Whisper and a Sigh (2003) and Someday We Will Forsee Obstacles (2005). Specifically, Syd Matters is 10 songs from Someday in their original order (basically the whole album, with only a couple of songs left out), followed by four cuts from the debut, and two bonus songs—a remixed version of “Someday Sometimes” and one new track. It would be appropriate to call this a meaty offering if the music weren’t so ethereal/fragile/singer-songwriter-ish.
To put it succinctly, Syd Matters doesn’t suffer from all this material. Call it an accomplished debut, or a confident repackaging of an existing body of work; either way, Matters has a distinctive, gentle sonic palette that encompasses melancholy, calm, and peace, expressed through acoustic guitars, floating accoutrements of electronics, and a low, expressive baritone.
The disc opens strongly. “City Talks”, a simple acoustic ballad to start, blossoms with the subtle accompaniment of a flute and just one unexpected chord to keep things interesting. “Obstacles” underlines its beautiful melody line with an outer-space swell and drunken brass: when he wails “We were migratory animals”, I’d challenge you to concentrate on anything else.
“All Of You”—well, we’ll get to that in a minute. Oh, what the hell, why wait: “All Of You” is absolutely brilliant. Perhaps it’s that I can’t extricate the experience of listening to being a foreigner in America—and no, it’s not that I’m pining for “an American girlfriend”—but the song captures the nostalgia and fondness of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”, all innocence and melancholy. It’s a timeless tune. The song was featured in the prom episode of the latest season of The O.C., but it’s too good, its words hit too close to home, to be really appropriate there.
If you listen closely, you can barely pick out the progression Matters has made intra-album; perhaps a toning down of the tinkling, scuttling electronics, a move into more traditional pop songwriting. But at the same time, it’s no step backwards: Matters has a much more distinctive compositional style on the early part of this disc, whereas a few too many times in A Whisper and a Sigh the artist’s influences are felt a bit too keenly. This is a minimal point, though, because if you’re just listening to Syd Matters straight through, you’re not listening to albums but to songs; and for the most part, it’s a consistently enjoyable, interesting experience.
Some of Syd Matters’ excursions into more standard singer-songwriter fare sometimes leave the listener underwhelmed, though. “Icare” attempts child-reminiscence (really pulls out all the stops, with the ring of a bicycle bell, a melody like an ice-cream truck), but the artist’s voice is too haunted by experience to really capture the simplicity and appeal of Elliott Smith’s “Thirteen” (or even the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends”). And the new song, “What Are You Looking At?”, is compositional laziness: mostly instrumental, the song works hard to establish a kind of Bends-cum-Coldplay stadium-pop aesthetic, before it’s washed away by a directionless vocal phrase (the title) repeated over the song’s final minutes.
You can’t stay mad at songs this pretty, though. Even at his most derivative (“Someday Sometimes” is Matters’ best McCartney impression), Matters incorporates just enough instrumental variation to hold the listener; essential for a good songwriter, his tunes never become predictable. And for every “Lost Bird” there’s an “English Way”—a gorgeous, knowing ode to Britpop, from the Beatles-esque flourish at the end of each line in the verse to the lyrical nod to Radiohead (musical nod, too, with that guitar interlude).
The album’s heart may be inextricable from this particular influence: “Flow Backwards”, its wailed lament “Sometimes I feel I could knock your brains out” somehow reminiscent of the chorus from “Life in a Glass House”. Point is, regardless: it’s a soaring all-sing-together moment that sticks fast.
I’m glad we have Syd Matters in America; so understated, but composed with an ear for melody and a subtle experimentation that always finds itself as an appropriate accompaniment to the organic melodies. And his ideas never sag with repetition. This may be one of those albums you like, then really like, then love, over the course of months or even years. It’s got the legs. Will you let it softly pull you in?