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.