The sounds that make 1960s pop so breezy -- lush harmonies, jazz chords, baroque instrumentation -- turn uneasy in this fascinating album.
In his review of the 2005 reissue of Cardinal, the underground classic collaboration between Richard Davies of the Moles and then unknown songwriter and arranger Eric Matthews, Jon Dale of Dusted noted, "It is essential to acknowledge the importance of Eric Matthews here: Davies songs had never sounded as rich as they did on 'You've Lost Me There' and 'Silver Machines,' thanks in great part to Matthews' lush elliptical arrangements. That his post-Cardinal solo records would be so unrelenting gorgeous is no surprise." Here then is the fifth in Matthews' exercises in "unrelenting gorgeousness", the baroque but dreamily understated Imagination Stage, which wraps fragile melodies and unusual, jazz-tinged chord structures in diaphanously lovely arrangements.
Since his much-lauded partnership with Davies, Matthews has had the usual share of music industry frustrations. Bumped from Sub Pop after two solo records, he did not put out another album for eight years. He did session work for bands including Tahiti 80, Ivy, the Dandy Warhols, and Mark Eitzel in the long interim. In 2005, he joined up with current label Empyrean records to release the EP Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit, the full-length Foundation Sounds in 2006, and now Imagination Stage.
Matthews is an unusual figure in contemporary music, conservatory-trained but versed in 1960s and 1970s pop and film music, a solo composer and arranger who is nonetheless committed to live, organic sounds. Though it was created alone, The Imagination Stage is by no means a bedroom recording; it contains all the expansive possibilities of the studio, combined with the eccentric personal vision of the home-recording artist.
In one interview, Matthews mentioned that he starts his songs with chord structure, letting melodies and lyrics flow from there. You notice almost immediately how the mood shifts as the chords do, bright major chord melodies turning suddenly cooler and darker with a move to minor keys. "That Kiss of Life," mutates constantly between breezy insouciance and sudden melancholy, the brass flourishes starting out in buoyancy and resolving in shadows, the strings throbbing, questioning and answering themselves. These elaborate arrangements might easily turn too heavy, overwhelming the light-as-air melody with embellishments, and yet Matthews has too steady a hand. One sound blossoms as the other fades. The drum machine keeps a dry and rigorous beat. The song fairly floats and billows over a foundation of endless complexity. The lyrics are crafted with similar care and discipline. "Little 18"'s delicate melody winds around clever, difficult verses that don't quite believe in love. ("Young women who will be burned by fires that beauty sets alight / You will be sad when the bed is clear for the night".)
Matthews plays a lot of different instruments, giving his songs a depth and variety unusual for a self-recorded album. He opens "Her Life" at a pipe organ, its church-sized tones interestingly at odds with his whispery voice. "Fools", near the end, juxtaposes a twitchy funk beat with harpsichord, then a trumpet solo. The combination is just jarring enough to catch your attention, jazz, baroque classical, R&B and pop somehow coexisting peaceably within a single track. Again, it could easily be too much. Matthews' triumph is the lightness with which he layers multiple sounds on top of each other.
You can tell that Matthews has struggled, artistically, commercially and personally, to reach the level of skill and achievement that The Imagination Stage represents and, even if you could not, you could still infer it from the title track's lyrics. "I'm not going back to the time when I struggled to find a music half blind and afraid to fly", he says of the years leading up to now. Later he vows, "I will try like hell to make a music beautiful, and it will sound like I'm alive". More than alive, certainly. It sounds like Eric Matthews is at the very top of his unique and difficult game.