5 Star: Matt Nathanson - Sings His Sad Heart
Breakup albums are unflinching works often inspired by the pain from the dissolution of a relationship. The artist is forced to take pause and demolish all pretexts when they enter the studio forcing them to acknowledge their shattered heart. It's their job to make sense of the chaos and agony that surrounds them, but it's always surprising to see an act lay so much on the line. On Matt Nathanson's tenth album, Sings His Sad Heart, he steps up to the plate swinging with a group of songs that dig deep into his psyche about desertion and it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Adele's 21, Lykke Li's I Never Learn, Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours and Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love as distressed masterworks.
For the last fifteen years Matt Nathanson had made a name for himself as a studious singer-songwriter whose albums have revealed shades of his struggles along with resilient and hopeful views of the world. Best known for his 2007 hit "Come on Get Higher", his recent output has consisted of a hybrid of pop, rock and folk. Cuts such as "Giants", "Headphones", "Bill Murray" and "Earthquake Weather" are reflective of his growth as a songwriter and his live shows are high-energy communal experiences where Nathanson shares winking witticisms and unfathomable sorrow with his audiences. You walk away feeling like you had a night out with friends where you reflected on love, laughter and loss, and yet you walk away feeling whole because his songs make you feel like you're not alone on this journey.
When Nathanson sat down to begin writing and recording his tenth studio album, he had grand plans to write an inspiring album tackling the state of the world, however, his psyche told a different story. Sings His Sad Heart is the album he's always been destined to make where he takes a deep look into the rearview mirror that doesn't just stretch back days, weeks or months but years and decades. Failed relationships have found a way to sneak up on him and he mined these memories into ten perfect and unified songs about abandonment.
From a production standpoint, Nathanson pushes himself and elevates his material in the process with inventive arrangements, lush harmonies, inherent rhythm and guitar licks that are sexy and seductive. His acoustic guitar is the foundation of the album and he adds to it with an eclectic blend of instruments colored in by producers Adam Pallin, Amir Salen and Butch Walker who helped Nathanson decorate the distress, ache, sleepless nights and the gut wrenching aftermath of a break-up. Each listen will reap new rewards as the production team delicately constructed the album evoking feelings of nostalgia.
Nathanson is more emotionally raw here than he has ever been before, which is saying something since his 2007 album Some Mad Hope found him at the edges of an abyss. Sings His Sad Heart is fraught with ghosts, with Nathanson painting pictures of lost souls drifting from despair to anguish trying to make sense of what went wrong. "Mine" opens the album with a galloping rhythm track of hand claps while he reminisces about the way the world looked differently when love was in full bloom. On "Way Way Back" he distills fifty-years of influences with its do-do-do chorus and backing vocals with hues of sixties soul on a love letter to a former flame who has found someone else who makes his case for why "No one else gonna love you like that". He takes to obsessiveness the way Lloyd Dobler pined and pursued Diane Court. "Different Beds" features Memphis-soul guitar that drenches the song in melancholy with protracting images that bring the narrator to terms in the here and now ("sometimes the things you love, don't love you back"). "Best Drugs" is a reflection of relationships that soured with a distillation of rhythm, blues, folk, rock, soul and hip-hop grooves.
The way he adorns memories on "Used To Be" will haunt you. Every moment of our life is about forward motion from the life cycle of birth-to-death, to the clock at sporting events to the milestones that define our lives. What no one will ever admit is our obsession with the past. It's an invitation to remind one of a love that once was ("If you're having trouble baby to holding onto memories, I've a king sized bed and a PHD in the way it used to be"). The rhythm could be a metaphor for the inner turmoil we put our bodies through trying to reconcile these pains while his vocals shift from subdued to dramatic as he works through his memories on the albums most integral song. The ghosts come into full focus on "Back Together" where he's piecing himself back together as he sings "I've been holding on to everything /With arms above, I'm balancing" allowing himself to let go of those who inhabit the rearview mirror. The chorus is one of internal optimism and resolution with an eye on the future with potentially the best lyric on the album, "Everybody wants to know they matter".
On "Long Distance Runner" the past is never just the past. You walk down the same streets, visit the same parks, restaurants, bars and dive diners in the hopes of recapturing the feeling you had even if it is for a few fleeting seconds ("The past is a long distance runner"). "Gimme Your Love" breathes with epic intensity and shades of Motown where he's handicapped from moving onward and fearful of what the future holds. You settle for a love that once was because it's all you know. When you think life is set to start and begin, the rug is pulled out from underneath you. Nathanson sounds defeated, lost and abject on the album's penultimate song "Let You Go" which is layered beautifully allowing his vocal vulnerability to shine through. There's meaning out there, he's searching for it, but none of it translates into bliss. He's lost at sea without the coziness of a companion. Once one experiences love, there's no going back and that is why the ending of relationships are so calamitous. The grief is palpable, believable and all too close to home. Nathanson dials up rhythmic beats and channels Link Wray riffs that are wrist-whipped on the album's closer, "Sadness". The chorus is about turning the page and having someone guide you through that darkness. We need voices to make sense of the confusion and when the album ends, it takes you to the right place where you mentally step forward into tomorrow.
Sings His Sad Heart is an album for those in crisis seeking a path forward. It can be argued the album doesn't provide the listener answers, but its ten songs make a good traveling companion. Nathanson surrenders himself to these songs creating a widescreen vision of anguish that permeates your senses that will prod memories long buried and forgotten which hearken back to the pantheon of aforementioned breakup masterworks. His self-consciousness is a strength allowing him to open up unhealed wounds for the world to see, piecing pain together from years back into an overwhelming collage that delicately dresses the bruised psyche of someone lovelorn and lost. Staring right into a mirror, Nathanson wasn't afraid to unfurl his darkest secrets and regrets over thirty-four sobering minutes. Sings His Sad Heart captures the insecurities, scars and ulcer-inducing pain of things left unsaid on a subversive pop-rock masterwork about the language of abandonment.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
5 Star: Matt Nathanson - Sings His Sad Heart
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