Sparse and stunning, Mat Sweet's third full-length wraps images of shocking violence in gossamer arrangements. It's always the quiet ones you have to watch.
"All of my heros died in one day, all of them fallen away," whispers Mat Sweet, the sole proprietor of Boduf Songs, as his third album opens, keeping slow time on acoustic guitar. "Swinging from nooses, wrists open wide." It's a shocking image, a violent, inexplicable verse, yet couched in such gentle sonic terms -- a strum, a sigh, a wash of cymbals -- that you may not hear it for what it is at first. There's a thread of unease running through these eight minimalist reveries, a hint of supernatural dread, and yet also serenity and loveliness. They are so quiet that you really have to listen -- no car CD, this one -- but once you do, you are drawn in to a mysterious other space.
How Shadows Change the Balance is clearly a painstaking undertaking. Sweet carefully layers his voice over itself for harmonies, plays all the instruments and seeks out eerie electronic and found sounds to augment these spidery melodies. It must take forever to record these songs. For instance, in "Things Not to Be Done on the Sabbath", a lilting folk guitar is doubled with itself and juxtaposed with banjo, to create a complex shivering web of interlocking notes. It sounds like a plucked and strumming orchestra, though it's just one guy. Later, when Sweet starts singing rounds and counterpoints with himself, you feel that you're in an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, Being John Malkovich even, so varied and omnipresent does Sweet get to be. And yet, even here, in this most dense and orchestral of the album's songs, there are pockets of quiet. You never forget, even for a moment, that Sweet has started with a blank canvas, a dead stillness. Silence is an audible presence in these songs.
The lyrics are oblique and non-linear, hinting at various times in the album at a supernatural theme. The corpses hanging from the gibbet in opening "Mission Creep" might be witches. "Pitiful Shadow Engulfed in Darkness" could be about some sort of natural spirit or troll, when it starts with the words, "We abide under bridges / we are sunk in the swamps/to hide in the hollows/or to rest in the flood." Or maybe not. It's hard to make an objective, continuous story out of these tracks. It's like trying to make sense out of a dream in progress. And yet, if you do let your mind wander over these verses, you can end up in some very strange places.
The strangeness is subsumed, though, in a lucid dreamlike state where even the most arresting, frightening or tragic images come to seem normal. It's a mindset best summarized by the gorgeous "Quite When Group", at the album's mid-point. The song trails off with Sweet singing a litany of unpleasant possibilities, "And even when we're cut / and even when we fall / and even when we burn / and even when we drown." It's a call that is always answered by a single response, "We sigh, we sigh, we sigh." Violence, resignation, serene beauty, it's all there in How Shadows Change the Balance, even if the volume never exceeds a murmur.