Iain Matthews is an occasionally inspired survivor. It's a pity he couldn't summon more drive and ingenuity, on what may be his last solo album, to leave the testament his service deserves.
Dear Reader and Listener, let me take you back in time. Specifically to 1970 when a band led by Iain Matthews, the ex-singer with Fairport Convention, recorded the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock” and had a worldwide smash, including a No. 1 in the UK. YouTube it, listen once, and then listen again. Whether you know the Joni song or not, I guarantee that after two plays, you’ll be hooked. It’s a beautiful arrangement; but above all there is the Iain Matthews vocal – light, airy, as it if were bathing in starlight and magic. It is seriously a performance for the ages.
The trouble with age is that changes us all. Listening to The Art of Obscurity, which Matthews himself says is “most likely his last album,” you can’t help shake off the feeling that Woodstock literally came from another world, and that this is another Iain Matthews whose voice and pop sensibility now exist sadly in the past. More than that, you feel he knows that too.
This collection of 12 tracks, all self-penned, exude such a wistful, melancholic, reflective air. The lyrics match the mood precisely, so much so that All Our (or My) Yesterdays might have been a more fitting title for the record. “Something shifted in my life,” sings Ian on “Ghost Changes” – or take this, “I’m just another pebble in the sand,” from the same-titled track. It’s as if he is preparing his audience, and himself, for retirement and walk into the sunset – witness a song called “The Sweet Hereafter” which follows “Pebbles in the Sand”.
The musical arrangements and backing mostly complement Matthews’ extended reminiscing. It’s sparse but does have some nice pseudo-George Harrison Leslie-filtered/slide-y touches, courtesy of producer and long-time Matthews associate, the Texan Bradley Kopp. On several occasions, though, you want to give the music some hurry-up urgency, as if winding it up from 33 to 45rpm.
This is all by way of saying that, if you’re searching for excitement, you’d be better off with the new Toy or Warpaint albums. Iain Matthews isn’t fishing in that pond. He will have an audience which stretches back to his ‘60s Fairport Convention days and who will have stuck with him during his three-decades-plus solo releases.
But, even on its own terms, The Art of Obscurity struggles to convince. A variety of records have been released over the years whose overwhelming projection is sadness and melancholy – from Joy Division’s Closer (desolate, tragic) to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (bitter, bleak). But, whatever the style of music, the one characteristic that unites all the toppermost albums of reflection is that they are made with feeling.
Iain Matthews doubtless feels strongly about many things in his life and career. The problem with this rather chugga-chugga, one-speed record is that he doesn’t persuade you that he feels sufficiently strongly to let it all hang out on record. If this is his last solo release, that’s above all a shame for him.