There seems to be a growing trend amongst singer / songwriters towards eschewing the acoustic guitar of their troubadour predecessors for more modern technological devices. Home studios, portable electronics and dropping laptop prices have changed much in the way music is approached by many up-and-coming musicians. The freedom that affordable digital technology has allowed the singer / songwriter is as important as any technological invention in the music industry since multi-track recording, but it comes at a price. The clean rap of drum machines and the blip of a keyboard open worlds of expression up to musicians but distract from the songwriting itself. The expression of sound through digital machines is cold and sterile compared to that of an acoustic guitar and one musician’s voice. It becomes a give and take. How much of the urgency and emotion of a song can be represented through the music compared to the lyrics and the song itself? The best tracks on Matthew Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete strike that balance.
Although Shaw is originally from California his music is really fueled by the urgency of the streets of Seattle, where he now resides. The music pulses, alive with the city. But it’s not the city we breathe everyday. Shaw’s music blips and tweaks with the unseen impulses fueling our day — the Ghosts in the Concrete. Shaw’s lyrics are intensely self-aware and observational. At his best, he taps into the impulses we all feel and fills his songs with the everynight urgency of engaging the city.
The most immediate comparison to Shaw’s music is the Postal Service, but only musically. A closer listen reveals that Shaw shares much more in common with the narrative songwriting style and acute observations of Conor Oberst. Ghosts in the Concrete is much more like I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning on too much Lithium than Give Up. Shaw and Oberst share a similar hyper self-awareness, but there remains a haze around Shaw throughout his narratives that prevents him from fully engaging his world. Where Oberst’s Manhattan reached out and swallowed him, Shaw’s Seattle seems to remain just beyond his grasp.
The digital buzz of Ghosts and the undercurrent of Shaw’s longing makes for a powerful effect when the two are in sync. The opening track, “Constant Movement”, begins the seamless four-song introduction into Shaw’s manic world of simultaneously chasing after and running from the city. “Constant Movement” then gives way to the semi-desperate, “Transition”. On “Transition”, Shaw sings of the unspoken fear and acceptance of being caught in the rut of the city. “With all these strange routines”, Shaw sings, “things remain the same however much we wish for change”. These first two songs illustrate the contradictory emotions Shaw feels toward his city. It both drives and inspires him, but overwhelms him as well.
It’s hard not to be grabbed by these first four songs: they are both intimate and universal. When he sings of his life getting drunk and chasing the city it feels like he is singing for every person beating through the night streets. Unfortunately, the album wanes after these first few tracks and although it finishes strong it never fully recovers. Shaw’s lyrics stay strong throughout, but aren’t enough to rescue the songs when the melodies begin to grow stale. Without the melodies, the synthesizers, sampling and programming begin to wear thin.
Although Matthew Shaw’s lyrics and cityscapes often echo the Beat generation’s madness in the cities, his songs maintain their fidelity to the pop tradition: they are universal and direct. Through all of the experimentation on Ghosts in the Concrete, it is still obvious that Matthew Shaw is a songwriter first. He isn’t experimenting with sounds and textures for the sake of experimentation, the programming and sounds on Ghosts in the Concrete are the sonic palette he uses to help illustrate the frenetic tone of his songs.