This morning walking past the omnipresent Jehovas Witness stands outside the local train station, amongst the array of pamphlets, “what is the key to family life?” “Where can we find the answers to life’s big questions?” “Comfort for the Depressed” was one particular piece of literature that jumped out , “Is God relevant today?”
It’s an interesting question. In the modern Western world where less and less people are religious every year, is God relevant? Is religion relevant? What about in music? Does the influence of belief, spirituality and religion still play a role in influencing the music we listen to? Or was Nietzche right when he said “god is dead”?
There are of course a huge amount of atheists in music from Kathleen Hanna to Charlie Parker, Simon Le Bon to John Lydon and Shirley Manson to,err, Marilyn Manson. That said, despite it being a risky career move, there are still many musicians who wear their religious belief on their sleeves, discussing it in their work and in their interviews. Take Leonard Cohen; he writes openly about Judaism, has referenced Scientology, admits to learning extensively of Zen Buddhism and even borrows heavily from Christian imagery. It’s perhaps that concept of imagery that is key to understanding the links between music and religion. So much of Western culture is shaped by Christianity, from our language, our morals, even our laws, that it is almost impossible to escape the iconography of religion permeating your creative output. It’s particularly prevalent in music that stems from Black origins; it’s near impossible to listen to soul, gospel, blues and latterly even hip-hop and rap music without the lyrics being littered with Christianity and more accurately the imagery of Christianity.
John Lennon once claimed that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but even their influence surely pales next to the influence of religion – as atheists it’s in some ways hard to accept, but even as we are moving away from being a religious country, we still remain a country entirely shaped by our religious history. God may be out of fashion but his legacy remains hugely influential, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is really up to you.
MATTHEW E. WHITE – FRESH BLOOD
Following the surprise success of Matthew E.White‘s debut album Big Inner, it would be natural to assume that the follow up would come with the traditional added pressure and expectation. However when your debut album was as big a risk as Matthew’s you’ve upped the stakes from the very start. By borrowing money to fund his debut from a lawyer friend who wanted to start a record label, from the beginning Matthew was already asking the question that plagues so many musicians, can you make any money out of this? Matthew’s faith in his own abilities and those of the Spacebomb Records family paid off; Big Inner allowed the label to expand, it allowed people to make a living, it allowed the members of the house band to tour the world and become professional musicians. All that said when it came to recording the next Spacebomb projects, this album Fresh Blood and Natalie Prass‘ sublime debut, all the money and success of Big Inner was simply ploughed back into the label. As Matthew put it in a recent interview “put the money back on the table and let’s make another record. We believe we have something to say and until that proves to be not true then we’ll keep on doing it.” It’s a brilliant way to run a label, inclusive, exciting and just dangerous enough to remain a thrill, as Matthew put it “we love the wild west nature of the industry as it is now. We get off on it and we love taking a risk.”
This approach to business is also mirrored in their approach to making music, there’s no compromises here, no attempts to pander to trends or to shape their sound to find a place in the market. It’s simply Matthew and his trusted band making the records they want to make, and importantly they’re always trying to make the current record even better than the last. Fresh Blood is exactly that, a bold step forwards sonically and lyrically, it’s a record that’s not afraid of sounding grandiose but manages to avoid the rich and full production getting in the way of it sounding intimate and relatable.
There’s no better example of the progress than the beautiful and disturbing Holy Moly. A song that deals openly with the issue of sexual abuse within the church, which brings us to one of main misconceptions about Matthew, the idea that he is a religious man. With frequent references to god and religion it is perhaps unsurprising that many jumped to that conclusion, but as Matthew pointed out in recent interviews, not all songs he writes are about him, sometimes he is not the narrator of the story, sometimes he takes on the character, which would go a long way to explaining the slightly conflicting and ambiguous methods he uses to explore the theme of religion. He often uses the vocabulary and imagery of Christianity, as he does on ‘Circle Round The Sun’ but it’s as a metaphor or a looking glass, giving him a way of looking at a situation from another’s point of view, rather than expressing his own beliefs. Whilst much of the album is upbeat, outwardly at least, from the opening refrain it’s clear that Holy Moly is a different beast; Muted guitar strums, minor-key piano chords and a heartbreaking vocal plea “holy moly, what’s wrong with ya? what’s wrong with ya?” For a minute or so it’s just that, piano chords and Matthew’s vocal, that even without context seems to be tinged with a deep sense of sadness “let’s move on man, it brings me down, maybe I can face it another way?”, he notes and then tellingly seems to question himself “are we healed in the end? Or do we all die unhealed?” It’s the sound of man who can no longer look the other way, pleading with an institution to never “give a man false hope” and face up to what’s going on within their walls. After that minute the song picks up via the always spectacular bass playing of Cameron Ralston, and the complex drum work of Pinson Chanselle that seems to be constantly building, always picking up intensity and coming further into the foreground. “Maybe these two fingers can pray for ya? Don’t you ever give me false hope” he begs as strings enter the mix and the bass picks up pace filling all the gaps that were previously left unfilled. “Home towns they aren’t simple things, and a home isn’t always where we think it is. Oh, the people we trust to stand up for us, the people we trust to hold on to us, the people we trust to deliver us. Holy moly, what’s wrong with ya?” There’s real anger there, his voice once a broken drawl becomes a volcano of rage and disgust, the music seems to constantly build and grow, mirroring the way he feels, “Fuck ’em all, love is home, home is love, fuck ’em all, fuck’ em all love is here, home is love, love is all”, the gospel tinged backing vocals drift in and out of the mix gradually coming to the fore as they state “I will not fear anymore”; it’s the sound of damaged souls rising up against the demons that put them where they are. It’s a truly arresting and moving piece of songwriting, the raging electric guitar and strings a wailing cacophony over a crashing, pounding drum beat, that gradually fade away are simply perfection. The sheer emotive weight the track carries is frightening, as a listener it leaves you drained, few tracks feel like they matter as much as this, it’s incredible.
The albums lead single, Rock & Roll is Cold pairs a gentle shuffling drum with a honky-tonk piano as Matthew delivers a tongue in cheek sermon on the spirit of Rock & Roll. The theory goes after 65 years of Rock & Roll it’s pretty much gone as far as it can and it’s become a dead genre that spends far too long looking back and not enough time looking forward, as Matthew puts it “everybody knows that rock & roll is cold.” He contrasts the fortunes of the “soulless” rock & roll with R&B; to his ears a progressive form of music that is “free”, and Gospel, a genre he considers “a gift.” He’s spoken openly of his belief that gospel is the most “perfect genre that has ever existed” and it’s clearly a strong influence on his harmonious, and collective approach to making music. It’s a track that in a way seems a little throw away, but it’s so delightfully done that it just comes across as a perfect radio friendly track, a spectacularly catchy single, it’s as poppy as he’s ever sounded and none the worse for that.
Tranquility is a tribute to the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of the finest actors of his generation, a man Matthew admits he didn’t know, but admired through his work. There’s probably elements of Philip’s career that Matthew can relate to, they both have a desire to be the best they can be and to use their talents over a wide spectrum of styles to interact with culture in as many ways as possible. Tranquility is a fitting tribute to a great talent. It starts with a blast of warm feedback, and the almost overly familiar opening line “goodbye old friend.” Over a series of rapid bass runs and gentle, heavy-handed piano chords, it’s a track that seems to just float past in a warm buzz, it’s probably the sound of what a more religious writer would consider heaven, it seems to threaten as resolution without reaching, every time you expect the next section to come into view it jolts you back to the same refrains, then as he repeats the line “we feel no bitterness” a feedback heavy guitar line, seems to thrust you even closer to some sort of higher state, before finally reaching the entirely beautiful two minute long outro, Matthew’s warm, blissful vocal, simply repeating the line “I rid my heart of all that resists tranquility” and that’s a perfect summary of the closing of the track, it is pure tranquility, the drums gently ticking over, warm organ sounds, slide guitars that are just euphoric and hypnotic, the bass, so languid, so perfect, the whole thing is just a joyous, perfect slice of sound, surely nothing should be allowed to sound this good in a world this cruel.
It’s the opening track Take Care My Baby that provides the albums title and it’s essentially an old fashioned love song. The opening full of rich piano chords, meandering guitar licks and bass lines, and Matthew’s voice, a warm, honey drip of a thing, “sing me a song with a voice so sweet, that could calm the oceans and part the sea.” As more instruments flow into the mix, it moves to sweet soul music, a gentle blast of brass greets his squeeze, “baby, I never met a one like you before, oh,oh oh, we’re talking all night long, eh, eh,eh from the midnight on” it’s basically Matthew “Barry” White, only he somehow manages to make it sound less sleazy and more romantic! Some almost jazzy drums and bass, create a jumpy feel in the second half of the song, “I remember so well and I remember so much ain’t nothing healing like the human touch, love will make a flower grow and blossom till its colour show, let me look at ya, let me look at ya oh…I’m pumping fresh blood for ya” he’s never sounded so seductive as he borrow heavily from the great soul singers, it’s a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a release from Bobby Womack or even Marvin Gaye.
If the album opens with a pure love song the closing track Love Is Deep, is the flipside of the coin. “Everybody ought to think twice baby, because love is deep, love is deep shit”, is certainly a man who has changed his tune since he was pumping fresh blood for you at the start of the album! If lyrically it’s a departure, musically it’s another blissful soul number, the horns are a thing of real beauty, whilst, without wanting to bang on about it, the bass playing is an utter delight! He asks “Marvin” and “Stevie” to back up his new found opinion that “love is deep and twisted.” He can’t fake the cynicism for long though he soon “can’t believe his heart ain’t dying from a loving you so strong” and he ends up concluding that “love is sweet, love is sweet shit” the conflict of love and giving yourself up to it is one that runs through the album, never more so than on this beautiful conclusion.
Whilst Big Inner was unquestionably a fantastic record, at times it felt like a tribute, it felt like an album that was in awe of records from the past, a stunning imitation of the greats, it recalled the best moments of the impressive history of both gospel and soul, whilst perhaps not marking it’s own territory within the genres. Fresh Blood is different, Fresh Blood is the sound of an artist finding his voice. It’s more dynamic, better produced, better played, and most importantly it’s got better songs. It’s a stunning record and a huge step forward, it’s the sound of an artist blossoming in the public eye and becoming very special indeed – let’s just hope he makes good on his promise to make album number three even better than this, then his proclamation on ‘Visions’ that “nobody in this world is better than us” might just come true!
Fresh Blood is out on Domino Records on March 9th. Matthew E. White plays St.Lukes in London March 9th, before returning to tour the UK throughout April.