It's long been a mystery to me why singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson hasn't caught on with a mainstream audience. He writes accomplished, heartfelt songs, and he radiates the easygoing, nice-guy personality of an older, wiser John Mayer.
And, as major-label debut Beneath These Fireworks proves, he's entirely unafraid of the light-rock production flourishes you can hear right now on any radio station with "Mix" in its name.
Therein lies the disappointment of the Massachusetts-born, San Francisco-based musician's newest release. The homogenized, Clear Channel-ready production announces its presence so loudly that it's hard to see the sincere, talented artist beneath the big-budget, um, "fireworks". Whereas on a decade's worth of previous albums, such as 2000's career highlight Still Waiting for Spring, Nathanson came across as a unique voice -- an above-average, if not great, songwriter -- his major-label debut sounds like, well, a major-label debut.
Cheesy, dentist's-office production threatens to overwhelm Nathanson's otherwise competent songwriting. A strings arrangement that would have made the Goo Goo Dolls blush swallows "I Saw", while "Suspended" plays like a lost track from Vertical Horizon's 1999 breakthrough, Everything You Want.
As on so many major-label debuts by songwriting veterans, the best songs on Beneath These Fireworks have already appeared in more sincere-sounding renditions on independent releases. All told, five of the album's 12 songs have appeared either on Still Waiting for Spring or the 2002 EP When Everything Meant Everything, a disc that in retrospect predicted Nathanson's current path.
Nathanson got his big break opening for then-relatively-little-known singer-songwriter John Mayer at Chicago's House of Blues in June 2001, and the rest is history. His songs have appeared on TV shows such as the WB's Smallville. Most recently, Nathanson opened for Maine native Howie Day on the young singer-songwriter's tour in support of Stop All the World Now -- an equally disappointing major-label debut that should serve as a warning to self-respecting musicians everywhere.
For all the letdown of Beneath These Fireworks, the disc has its moments of near-brilliance. The album's highlight is "Little Victories", a soft, confident song that also stood out on Still Waiting for Spring. This recording may boast more polish, but the basic elements are the same: an acoustic guitar, Nathanson's everyman vocals, and a string section straight out of the Beatles' "Yesterday" or Green Day's "Good Riddance".
The rest of the album could benefit from similar production, because the generic Matchbox 20 guitars that ring out on faster tracks simply don't suit Nathanson. Nathanson is not a rocker and, lacking the chops of a guitarist like Mayer, he can't rely on fancy riffing. He's at his best when his songwriting gets a chance to shine through.
The first single, "Sad Songs", features a melody slightly reminiscent of the Goo Goo Dolls' "Name" and some Mayer-lite, heavily literal lyrics. "I'm so tired of singing all the sad songs in my head", Nathanson sings in the undeniably catchy hook, before trailing off into vague throwaway lines like "it felt great falling" or "feel so faded, so far gone".
But then on "Lucky Boy", another track recycled from Nathanson's 2000 album, the singer-songwriter again sounds like himself. "Took your words like you said that I should / And look what good they've done me", he laments bitterly. "It's a cruel world, and I'm a lucky boy".
Lyrics are Nathanson's strength, and clever lines abound, although again, not in as great a number as on Still Waiting for Spring. "I'll forget about you long enough to forget how I need to", he sings on "I Saw". The opening song, "Angel", the best new composition on the album, includes the phrase "Me and gravity, we never could agree", and manages to escape the monolithic production that characterizes the rest of the album.
Perhaps the best example of what went wrong here is "Weight of It All". A kiss-off to "lovers who recite lines", this tune is graced by a lovely melody and earnest lyrics. But after an affecting verse sung alone with acoustic guitar and soft percussion, those Wisconsin-cheddar electric guitars arrive, and the song turns into a lost Peabo Bryson single from an early 1990s Disney cartoon.
Matt Nathanson's should be a heartwarming music-industry success story, but the industry just isn't conducive to that type of fairy tale. Unfortunately, virtually the only guaranteed path to radio stardom for a mid-level songwriter such as Nathanson is the Vertical Horizon path: sacrifice idiosyncrasy and sound like everything the people who buy their CDs at WalMart already own.
With Beneath These Fireworks, Nathanson may finally recoup financially for his years in the wilderness. And that's fine -- it couldn't happen to a nicer fellow. But anyone who buys this CD instead of Still Waiting for Spring will still have wasted 15 bucks.
It's hard to call a guy a sell-out when he has toiled nobly in obscurity ever since releasing his first album, Please, in 1993, but... I can't think of a way to finish this sentence.