[1 October 2008]
It’s not surprising to learn that Matt Kadane, lead vocalist of long-running slowcore kings the New Year, is a history professor. Lyrically, Kadane has always been obsessed with the passage of time, concerning himself in particular with aging and its effects on the psyche. He has always used songwriting as an opportunity for self-examination, and his unabashed introspection manifests itself in a guardedly fragile vocal delivery that even now, with Kadane in his mid-30s, evinces an adolescent vulnerability.
Kadane’s voice isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed much over the years. Since he and his brother, Bubba Kadane, started making music in 1992 as Bedhead, the duo has repeatedly revisited the same glacially slow guitar-driven sound. Bedhead broke up in 1998, but reformed as essentially the same band with a different name in 1999. The New Year has released two albums with tellingly ominous titles – Newness Ends (2001) and The End Is Near (2004) – since then. The latter album begins with a line that pretty much sums up the Kadane ethos: “The end’s not near, it’s here / Alleluia, spread the cheer.”
At first blush, this self-titled third album sounds like more of the same: Bubba and Matt Kadane’s swirling, interlocking guitars underscored by Chris Brokaw’s (formerly of Codeine) restrained, thumping drums and Steve Albini’s gloriously crystal clear production. But careful listeners will quickly catch on to a newfound glint of warmth, if not hope, in Kadane’s lyrics. He’s still obsessed with regret, aging and loneliness, but a sense of peaceful resignation pervades much of the album. The new mood shines through in the opening lines of “MMV”, emerging in time with a bittersweet autumnal piano line: “There are things some people classify as pleasures / That just before I die, I’ll have no regrets at having missed / Camping and orgies and places on the body I’ve never kissed.” As the final word concludes, Brokaw comes in with some feather-light drum brushing that beautifully underscores Kadane’s next sentiments: “But however you define / Whatever you have in mind / We both have a need for things we don’t need / Like belief and relief and pleasure and grief.”
Kadane has a penchant for delivering lines – especially song-opening ones – that puncture the heart like a needle full of morphine. On “Body and Soul” he softly laments, “I don’t want a body / Without a soul / Here’s just one more thing / I can’t control.” It’s a hell of an existential zinger, and its sadness is amplified by a solo piano – an instrument, by the way, that’s used more here than on any prior The New Year or Bedhead albums – to soul-stirring effect.
Kadane’s despairing tenor and inward-looking lyrics have long been the emotional center of both Bedhead’s and the New Year’s songs. But now more than ever, the music itself does far more than just hold its own. Guitarist Peter Schmidt and bassist Mike Donfrio, both also indie rock veterans, round out the band, and together the members have produced one of the most sonically rewarding albums I’ve heard this year. Whether on “Wages of Sleep”, where the two Kadanes weave their guitars together like sublime sonic latticework, or on the adrenaline-rush of “The Door Opens”, where a simple rhythmic cymbal-tap provides the foundation for a tense rocker built around the portentous line, “The door opens / And all hell blows in,” the band demonstrates an intuitive solidarity that had eluded it on its prior albums.
Like all of the band’s work, The New Year will likely receive a modest, respectful reception from the critical community before being noiselessly forgotten. But this subtle, delightful and lovingly crafted album will doubtlessly be revered by those lucky few who have been following the Kadane brothers throughout their quiet but increasingly remarkable musical careers.