Music

Aqualung: Strange and Beautiful

Mike Schiller

Aqualung is (unfortunately?) not a Jethro Tull cover band. It's more like what might happen if Coldplay had a brain.


Aqualung

Strange and Beautiful

Label: Red Ink
US Release Date: 2005-03-22
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

The importance of space is too often overlooked in the modern school of songwriting. No, it's not that modern songs have any lack of references to the stars, the Sun, the rings of Saturn, or anything you could see with a good, hard look up into the sky. Rather, there's so much of a push to fill every nook and cranny of every song with sound that the modern pop song rarely has time to reflect or room to breathe.

Matt Hales is seeking to change that.

Matt Hales goes by the name of Aqualung, and there's little doubt that he hopes to crash into the United States with the same critical favor and word-of-mouth buzz he accumulated three years ago in the UK when the first song he wrote as Aqualung was picked up for a VW Beetle ad. That ad catapulted Hales into the UK media spotlight, and he hasn't looked back since. The song was called "Strange & Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell on You)", and it serves as the lead track on Strange and Beautiful, a compilation summarizing the first two Aqualung albums. Five tracks from the self-titled debut and seven from the follow-up Still Life comprise the track list, yet the result is an album that is surprisingly unified, as if the two albums were always meant to be building blocks toward this, the definitive Aqualung statement thus far.

"Strange & Beautiful" is, as its title suggests, a slow waltz dominated by pianos and propelled by a drum machine, our hero Mr. Hales resolving to captivate his love via means other than those most of us humans are blessed with. The easy comparison here would be Radiohead, as the production of the instruments and the effects on Hales' voice both recall some of the tricks Kid A foisted on its unsuspecting public. Even so, there's more Jamie Cullum than Radiohead to be found here, as Hales is far more interested in pining for his various loves than reflecting on the hopelessness of the world around him.

So what sets Hales apart from the rest of the Coldplay clones, the rest of those who would be Radiohead if they could see past their own eyelids? It's the space. "Falling Out of Love" begins with a declaration of motionlessness: "I watch the Sun, / See it rise and fall..." and then he trails off, leaving nothing but a slight beat and the distant rumble of thunder in the form of some low, low piano notes. He leaves us hanging for three full measures, an eternity in songcraft, before he explains that he's "Waiting for something to change". It's a subtle trick, but one that forces us to focus on the lyrics surrounding it, lending them more weight and letting the listener think about what's being said. Hales alternates the deafening silence with equally deafening string arrangements, giving the song the ebb and flow of human breath. It's positively beautiful.

As the album progresses, it becomes obvious that silence is a powerful weapon in Hales' arsenal. The stop-start of the piano in the intro of "Brighter than Sunshine" evokes late-period Beatles work, while the gradual softening of the opening explosion of "Left Behind" is more like Coldplay with some sense of artistic sensibility. Hales is a master of defied expectation as well, the most obvious example of which comes in the exquisite "Breaking My Heart", as a prechorus builds into what the listener thinks must be an exploding chorus, only to pull it back at the last second, allowing a couple of stray piano notes to form the entirety of the instrumental backing. "Extra Ordinary Thing" features a harpsichord intro that's dark enough to be described as gothic, but the song itself is backed by lush piano chords that do allow the Sun to peek through every once in a while.

"Cheer up, it might never happen", sings Hales at the start of said "Extra Ordinary Thing", and that thought best exemplifies the contradiction that Hales, as Aqualung, treads so skillfully. He lives in darkness, but he's a bit playful about it (sometimes too much so -- Hales never met a waltz he didn't like), more content to breathe, to quietly lead his listeners in one direction as he sneaks into the opposite. More than anything, Strange and Beautiful is plastic digital proof that one needn't sacrifice accessibility for intelligence: rather, the two can indeed coexist peacefully and blissfully.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.