Matt Nathanson: Some Mad Hope

Matt Nathanson
Some Mad Hope

Matt Nathanson released his first album back in 1993 — a low-key folk-rock disc called Please. Fourteen years later, little has changed.

Oh sure, he’s toured around the nation and has a tighter backing band, but he’s only gotten more generic with time. His first recordings sounded like a one-man Dispatch: acoustic-leaning DIY numbers that were perfect for late-night fratboy singalongs. Nowadays, his gaze is aimed straight at those 30-second spots on MTV shows where a dramatic pop number is played over an even more dramatic scene from The Hills or Laguna Beach or whatever pointless rich-girl drama show comes out next (my bet’s on Boston Harbor).

Some Mad Hope follows his major-label 2003 disappointment Beneath These Fireworks, an album that felt completely robbed of any sense of originality. Knowing his mistakes, he largely drops the acoustic-and-mic numbers for a more fleshed-out approach this time around, and boy does this thing gleam. Every track has enough studio sheen to polish a car (or three). In listening to “Falling Apart”, each element (the piano pumps, the bass, Nathanson’s own multi-tracked backup singing) can be heard rather distinctively — none of that basement muddiness of his early tunes. While this all sounds great on an iPod, however, a little more time could’ve been given to the actual songs and the real problem at hand: Nathanson’s vocal presence.

Just like Beneath These Fireworks, Nathanson does absolutely nothing to distinguish himself from the crowd. He has no vocal presence and no discernable personality whatsoever. If you heard “Gone” on the radio, it would be damn near impossible to determine whether this is the work of Matt Nathanson, Howie Day, Savage Garden, or Evan & Jaron (or whatever guitar-slinging crooner is vaguely popular at the time that you’re reading this). However, it should be pointed out that — this being a pop album and all — the melodies still pack a punch. There are still hooks, catchy little trills, and even the occasional guilty-pleasure pop-rock number lying about (which, in this case, is the carefree-yet-horribly-titled “To The Beat of Our Noisy Hearts”).

Yet, the biggest point of contention (undoubtedly) will be Nathanson’s lyrics. If you’re over a certain age (or just really jaded), then lines like these may feel like wordy tripe:

I remember honey lips and words so true

I remember nonstop earthquake dreams of you

You’re coming on fast like good dreams do

All night long

I still can feel you kiss me love

I still can see your brown skin shining, shining

I still can feel you kiss me love

Come on and drive me wild

If you are still collecting watching your O.C. DVDs on constant repeat, this just might be moving. If you can’t wait to hear the new Radiohead record, you probably have never heard of Matt Nathanson. Additionally, in a case of horribly mixed analogies, opening song “Car Crash” has oddly apocalyptic lyrics that — unfortunately — can get misconstrued horribly out of context:

I want to feel the car crash

I want to feel it capsize

I want to feel the bomb drop, the earth stop

’til I’m satisfied

I want to feel the car crash

’cause I’m dying on the inside

Yes, we get that the narrator’s need in the song is just to feel something, but “I want to feel the bomb drop, the earth stop / ’til I’m satisfied”? Some say subtlety is a lost art…

Joseph Arthur was dwelling in the indie-folk scene for many years before “Honey and the Moon” — a sweet yet poignant acoustic ballad — got picked up by the ad agencies, soon appearing everywhere from the first O.C. mix-tape (aka Now That’s What I Call Indie!) to the soundtrack for American Pie 3. Arthur had bigger concert draws, appeared on Letterman, and then… continued to make the same folky/arty albums that he’s built his career on. He didn’t let monetary success faze him in the least, and for that we can be grateful. Matt Nathanson is following the opposite path: his writing is getting weaker and more generic as his studio budget escalates. Is Nathanson an artist worth saving from the lures of commercial stardom? Absolutely — but at this rate, changing his mind will be a monumental task in itself. Some Mad Hope indeed.

RATING 3 / 10