[5 November 2013]
To those unfamiliar with Matt Elliott, the title Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart may conjure up some misplaced Panic! at the Disco comparisons. Its lengthiness and its cheekiness could give the impression that Elliott is out to tell jokes.
However, one spin of “The Right to Cry”—or even a cursory listen of anything he’s ever written before—should dispel any such notions. If there’s anyone who has a unique ability to introduce listeners to unpopular forms of folk music, particularly Eastern folk, it’s Elliott. Not only is his songwriting refined and his technique impeccable, but he also exhibits some traits that would drive many an angsty listener into liking his music. On The Broken Man, his fantastic 2011 LP, there is a song titled “If Anyone Tells Me, ‘It Is Better to Have Loved and Lost Than To Have Never Loved At All,’ I Will Stab Them in the Face”. His purveyance in all varieties of darkness can, at times, tread close to self-parody; he’s frequently compared to Tindersticks and more accurately The Black Heart Procession, both of who are key vendors in the marketplace of music for the heartbroken. Were Elliott and The Black Heart Procession to tour together, tickets would have to come with a complementary antidepressant.
But those who vent their anger out through genres like screamo, hardcore, or whatever it is Panic! at the Disco counts as won’t find an unchallenging experience in diving into Elliott’s somber catalog. Beginning with the Songs trilogy, which includes Drinking Songs (2005), Failing Songs (2006), and Howling Songs (2008), then culminating in The Broken Man, Elliott has immersed himself in the bleakest of sonic landscapes. The tone of his songwriting isn’t merely dark or sad; it feels quite often hopeless. “Some things are so dark that woe betide the light that shines on them,” Elliott sings on The Broken Man‘s lead single “Dust Flesh and Bones”, then repeating: “This is how it feels to be alone.” As if the words weren’t enough, there’s the disturbing fact that he doesn’t sound like he’s joking.
The Songs trilogy is an examination of sorrow unparalleled in the musical world; while there are are some songs that come close to being “catchy” in the pop sense of the word (see the gypsy swing of “The Failing Song”), on the whole the trilogy is bleak and uncompromising. It’s not terribly long as far as trilogies go—at three hours and thirty minutes, it’s no crazier a thing to engage than a Lord of the Rings film—but it’s difficult to get through because of just how pervasive the dreariness is. At this point in time, there are no illusions about the type of music Elliott is going to continue to make with each successive LP. His fingerpicking technique on the classical acoustic guitar will be prominent, his lyrics will involve some element of gloom, and overall the experience will be a grim one. This is, after all, the guy who named the happiest-sounding track of the Songs trilogy “Song for a Failed Relationship”.
Given this context, Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart primarily becomes not just a funny title—though it certainly is—but a shocking one. If there’s a single thing one could glean from all of Elliott’s past work, it’s that a lot of things can break a person’s heart: growing older, giving up on dreams, feeling alone—the list goes on. To see an album with Elliott’s name on it bear such a title, then, suggests that the man is, to some extent, triumphantly asserting the ability of humans to overcome the worst in life. Only the physical maladies can truly hold someone back. For that reason, as well as the relative dearth of songs in minor keys, OMICBYH is the most optimistic of Elliott’s solo work. This, however, doesn’t mean that he’s gone and switched up his style entirely. The record opens with a plucked chord on the guitar and Elliott’s bass vocals. “Prepare for Disappointment” recalls the Eastern European flourishes of Failing Songs, particularly in its lovely coda. The change in mood here is noticeable straight from the get-go: the songs are largely in major keys, and even those that have a dark mood in the vein of Elliott’s previous work, “Prepare for Disappointment” being a good example, are more romantic than depressive. Those who are put off by Elliott’s style won’t find OMICBYH to be all that different from his past outings, but to those who have stuck around through the dreariness up to this point, it’s a surprising breath of fresh air, and more than just a glimmer of hope following The Broken Man‘s unflinching examination of pain.
Alongside this newfound sense of optimism, one thing that makes OMICBYH stand out so strikingly from the rest of Elliott’s discography is how much of a band record this is. Elliot has always incorporated other musicians into his music for his studio recordings, but here even more than before the music feels less centered on Elliott as a solo musician as it is on Elliott the bandleader. Album highlight “Reap What You Sow”, featuring a stunningly deep vocal performance by Elliott, would be an entirely different—and less successful—track were it not for the jazzy drumming backing him. And then there’s opener “The Right to Cry”, which at 17 minutes is one of the longest tracks he’s ever written, the last few minutes of which get its momentum from the participation of multiple players. The tense trailer for OMICBYH makes the importance of the group interplay particularly obvious, but the music speaks loudly to this fact as well. “I Would Have Woken You With This Song” is one of Elliott’s most impressive instrumentals, and that’s largely the case because of the strings that accompany him. While OMICBYH, like its predecessors, is primarily an example of a sound being refined rather than transformed, he knows just the things that are necessary to enhance the songwriting.
There are still some roadblocks for Elliott to swerve past, however. “The Right to Cry” doesn’t warrant its 17-minute running time. Its opening and closing are compelling pieces of music, and the middle is decent on its own terms, but it never feels like it needs to be one complete track; it’s a “suite” that doesn’t really feel like one. The rest of OMICBYH remains pretty concise, with tracks averaging about four minutes, which makes the frontloading of the LP all the more awkward. Hearing melodies like the one at the end of “Prepare for Disappointment” being expressed so succinctly makes one wish that some of the fat in this otherwise leanly composed record was trimmed. Admittedly, when Elliott does excess it’s not out of guitar noodling, something that’s a common folly of guitar players as proficient as Elliott. In most instances, it’s just an idea being exhausted beyond its ideal point.
But as far as weaknesses go, it’s entirely understandable for someone in his position. Whether under his own name or under the guise of the Third Eye Foundation, he’s been making music for almost 20 years, and over the course of that time he’s been able to forge a sound that’s unmistakably his, a feat many musicians will spend a lifetime trying to do only to come up short. With OMICBYH, Elliott is adding yet another degree of refinement to his style, proving that for all of the sadness he’s sung, there’s at least something of a light peering ahead at the mouth of the tunnel. For someone who has undertaken a career so invested in serious, weighty, existential themes draped in darkness, it’s no small feat. If Matt Elliott believes that only myocardial infarction can break your heart, you best believe it.