Matt Elliott: The Mess We Made

[21 July 2003]

By David Antrobus

Matt Elliott is such a regular-guy name. There must be thousands of geezers in the UK (one fairly well-known footballer springs immediately to mind) with that same moniker, good likeable lads all. It’s a bit of a far cry from calling yourself the Third Eye Foundation, really, but that is what has happened. Essentially, he was they and he became a father and they are apparently no longer and he is now just a plain decent-sounding bloke, Matt Elliott from Bristol (one of England’s musical hotbeds, to be sure).

Except he’s not decent. This Matt Elliott messes with your mind, and he knows it. He even called his album The Mess We Made.

Let’s back up. Throughout the latter half of the ‘90s, the Third Eye Foundation showcased cosmic drum n’ bass experimental rock that sounded like a more beats-driven Mogwai. It was trippily compelling, rhythmically complex, and different enough to earn itself membership in a new subgenre: drill n’ bass. Now that Elliott has dropped the alias, it appears that he’s also dropped the chaotic percussive intricacy to a large extent. More surprisingly yet, on The Mess We Made, this does not detract from the music’s impact in any significant way. There’s no gentle easing in, either. “Let Us Break”, with its unsettling pitch shifts, layers, and whispered talk of shit, piss, bones, stones, and soul, is an off-kilter labyrinthine walk along Bizarro Boulevard, stealthily sliding (relatively unnoticed) into slightly unhinged sugarplum twinkles, tangentially even, as if Elfman’s scissor hands are indulging in a sweet cut n’ paste flurry. After which, Sabine Chaouch’s lovely processed voice, the soft, Spanish guitar and (Chris Cole and Nick Ballard’s) cellos warm to their respective tasks. The overall effect is beyond disconcerting. It sounds, to be honest, like the frightened madness in a psychotic’s head. “Also Ran” is the after dinner mint to this dangerously sweet dessert. Although, once again (since illusion appears to be the binding theme), it only seems that way at first. After what sounds like the melodic yet awful shimmering voices of a revenge haunting (“I can’t wait for you to die, for those ills you suffered / We / I will haunt you in your sleep / All the ghosts that you see are a reflection of me”), Elliott drops the first tentative beats, and a whole new song is born. A warm, glitchy understated groove river, in which Elliott seems to expect (you!) the listener to fill in some of the percussive elements (yourself! In your own head!), meanders affably until reaching a melancholy piano-and-organ widening delta, faint suggestions of brass opening into the inevitable oceanic dissipation. And, damn it, look around: we’re still only two tracks in.

“The Dog beneath the Skin” is funereal; sombre piano and a weary voice that tries (on occasion) to soar, but ultimately fails—a damaged kite crashing to earth and crumpling in a sudden melodramatic orgy of distortion. Whatever this might represent remains hidden by feedback and sharp accordion wheezes. Or just, like, whatever. Imploding relationships could conceivably sound like this, though, and that’s no lie.

Piano once again introduces the title song. Faux-jazz bass props it up. More processed voices weave themselves wearily into the sad tapestry, blurrily indistinct like old hopscotch grids after a rainstorm. Strings swell somewhere distant. Then blam. An incredibly frenetic glitch n’ stutter beat suddenly grabs all that ennui and drags it on a madcap ride above the treetops, over the buildings. For an ecstatic while, it’s shocking and exhilarating. Until, of course, the inevitable mortuary moan sucks it back down to earth once more; the hopeless sorrow-peddler, gravity’s pimp.

Cotard’s Syndrome, apparently, is a form of delusion in which the sufferer believes his or her body and possessions do not exist. It is nihilistic in the truest sense. Matt Elliott takes this obscure little DSM-IV tidbit and fashions a whole song from it. Most of the instruments feed in backwards, looping and swooping and hauling along the hurtful lurch and hitch of a semi-strangulated, barely vocalized, spectral anguish. It’s bewildering. Acoustic guitars and gorgeous upper range piano melodies attempt to sweeten the pill, like pastoralism and/or romance really can defeat plain psychosis (honest, guv’nor). If twisted melancholy is your thing, alight for a while and sample this deadly intoxicating pollen, but be warned of the carnivorous or at least the mind-fucking potential of these alien blooms.

Which brings us to the great flood that opens “The Sinking Ship Song”. Howling gales and pounding rain frame a subdued acoustic guitar, prior to the drowned sailor choir (credited as the Drunk Ensemble of Chancelade) that shanty-sings its oblivious way to a soggy drunken hell (“Lets forget the pain tomorrow’s life may bring / & joys of yesterday far behind us / Life is filled with fear so drink another beer / We’ll have no sadness here until tomorrow”). This is one of the spookiest songs you’ll hear this year, maybe ever. I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is going through emotional turmoil, and I’m completely serious. A brazenly suicidal studied nonchalance informs its every falling raindrop, its every defeated moan, the very indifference of the flapping winds that buffet it from bow to stern. “End” is basically an extraordinarily pretty instrumental reprise of “Cotard’s Syndrome”.

“Forty Days” closes in a Spanish guitar mist. Cinematic and straightforwardly beautiful at first, invaded by phantom-choir-like gusts, pastel brass, and some stubborn 11th-hour processed glitch-FX, it’s a fittingly disturbed coda to an ultimately harrowing record.

It’s a cliché, but beware the cursory spin. This record expects—nay, demands—multiple exposures. Its hidden delights and traps are equally patient. Just make sure you have your emotional shit together, or Mister fucking Elliott will mess with you, and I mean it. I’m torn between loving this album and being kind of mad at its creator. Somehow, though, that isn’t stopping me from playing it damn near every chance I get. Um, what’s left to say? Just don’t automatically trust those regular-seeming guys, alright?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elliottmatt-mess/