Career-defining songs from a songwriter with an already-impressive track record. Prepare to hear plenty about this for some time to come.
Ten albums into his recording career, Matt Nathanson’s still capable of taking risks and Show Me Your Fangs is a fitting title for an album about conquering fears and seizing the mother-loving day. Nathanson has done that to varying degrees of success on previous records but this time, his observations on life, love and the spaces in between are hyper realistic, as though they are ripped from the theater of our own dreams -- broken and otherwise. It doesn’t hurt that he crafts hook-laden gems meant to make you dance like a dang fool.
The musical vibe is contemporary with touches of late 1970s Southern California decadence and dayglow optimism teeming amid the more delicious chord changes. But whereas some of the best music of that era -- Jackson Browne’s requiems for counterculture refuse, Frey and Henley’s cocaine hangovers and Little Feat’s refusal to actually set foot upon the earth -- was about the shells that some people had become, Nathanson is confident that we can be better people now and in the future, no matter if we have ever been broken.
The sun-kissed first single “Gold in the Summertime” perfectly captures the vibe of AM radio splendor and the carefree optimism that overcomes us all somewhere between the 15th day of May and 12th day of September. It’s predictable yet appropriate fun, matching perfectly the lyrical spirit of album opener “Giants” (bound to become a show-opener for some time to come). On the deep, nuanced “Adrenaline”, Nathanson sounds like one of those acts destined for stadiums -- that song and others here are buoyed by the kind of confidence and honesty that carried U2 to those heights. And whereas somehow the Irish quartet’s name has become synonymous with all that is wrong with stardom and ambition, we should not forget that at one time that band was running battle against the machine.
Unlike Bono, Nathanson isn’t concerned with saving the world; he just wants to make it a little more inhabitable. Which is why songs such as “Bill Murray” exist. It’s not an empty or oh-so-hip nod to the comic great, but instead a pledge of love and fidelity, of charging headlong into the unknown regions of another and letting them charge headlong into yours. It’s about as lovely a love song as one could hope for in our times as Nathanson manages to pull off that unthinkable trick and say something that’s been said before but in a way that no one else has thought of yet.
It’s a trick he pulls off time and again across this 10-track collection, even on the all-too-brief “Shouting”, a sliver of a tune that you might foolishly think can’t say so much in just over two minutes. But, like a Hemingway story, it gets the job done and moves on, making room for the lengthier but no less weighty titular piece (maybe the album’s best track), “Playlists and Apologies”.
And if each of the songs here seems perfectly crafted for record, they also seem perfectly crafted for the stage. “Disappear” isn’t just likely to become one of Nathanson’s career highlights; it seems destined to become a staple of campfires and open mic nights in the coming decade, obtaining the kind of ubiquity most songwriters dream of and some maybe even fear. But fear isn’t in this artist’s vocabulary as he takes big risks with “Washington State Fight Song”, an eminently memorable, heartbreaking and quotable track that has a destiny of its own and that’s to reach across generations and speak truth as the song so eloquently does in each of its perfect verses.
Show Me Your Fangs does have a flaw and that comes in the form of the over-produced closer “Headphones”, which tries just a little too hard to be relevant and catchy. It might have had a better life as a jingle or as a disposable track on one of those compilations that plays endlessly overhead at coffee shops from coast to coast. That said, there’s something good at the core of the tune and maybe it’s just that we know it was written by someone with a real heart and real knack for telling the truth. Though maybe that’s why it feels like a cheat, because it doesn’t say anything like the other songs say, it doesn’t speak a truth that someone hasn’t already spoken. It’s escape without consequence and all the more forgettable for it.
What isn’t forgettable are the nine songs that come before that one, and for that, we have to thank Nathanson for giving us something to hold onto in an era where music has supposedly become disposable, but where art matters as much as it ever did -- especially when, like Show Me Your Fangs, it speaks to and from the heart.