A few weeks ago, I bought an album by an artist I had never heard of before on the basis of a glowing review in the Guardian. The artist was Matthew E. White, and the album was Big Inner. I was blown away by it the first time I listened to it, but I’ve listened to it a lot since, and my enjoyment of it has only deepened — a sure sign that it’s a long term ‘classic’ that I’ll listen to again and again.
It’s an unusual album in many ways, and it’s hard to describe its style or ambience. The closest approximation I can make is to say that it’s a combination of gospel, soul and funk, with a bit of psychedelia thrown in. The orchestration is extremely layered and lush on many of the tracks, with a string section and vibrant brass. In contrast, White’s voice is very gentle and dreamy, giving an intimate feel to the tracks. Some of the songs are about love and loss, and others have a religious theme, but throughout White sounds like a weary man singing to bring comfort (perhaps just to comfort himself). That sounds like a criticism, but it’s a key part of the emotionally affecting tenor of the album. If you’re a bit weary and lost yourself, you’ll feel as if you’ve got a fellow traveller on the road, and that’s very consoling. I’ve also made it sound as if all the songs are downbeat, sad ones, but there a few really upbeat tracks that are impossible to stay still while listening to1.
I quite like listening to a new album on headphones, while walking, because it’s a great way to get close to the music and really listen to it intently. However, as a side effect, you often end up associating that particular occasion with the music for ever more2. I listened to this album while walking back from the railway station when we had that very snowy period. Everything was smothered and muffled with snow, and it had just got dark. Listening to the hypnotic repetition of ‘Brazos’, I almost went into a trance. It’s difficult to describe, but the combination of the song, the repetitive action of walking, and the slightly unreal, snowy world was rather wonderful. Even better, just as I turned in to the long road leading to my house, ‘Hot Toddies’ came on and the warm but slightly melancholy track was the perfect expression of my longing to be in the warmth of my home3.
It’s a gorgeously recorded album too. Unlike many albums, it seems to have been recorded with a decent dynamic range, and the detail of the layers of orchestration get a chance to shine out, even with the MP3 format I have. I’m thinking of getting a copy on vinyl too (partly because I think it’s a ‘keeper’), because I think it would sound even better in that warm, revealing medium.
I like every track on the album, but the final, 10 minute-long track, ‘Brazos’, is a real tour-de-force. After a brass and string-lead preamble (several of the tracks mutate musically part way through), a repeated bass note starts. Bass is often described as ’throbbing’, but this really is a pulsing throb that quickly becomes hypnotic. Then a repeated vocal refrain starts:
Jesus Christ is our Lord / Jesus Christ, he is your friend
On top of this, more and more layers of sound are woven in, with gospel singers, brass crescendos, people humming, drums, tambourines and goodness knows what else stacked up in the mix. It’s repetitive but never boring, because it’s so rich and variable. There’s a startling handclap that comes in when you least expect it, which almost made me jump out of my skin on my snowy walk home. It’s mesmerising, all-enveloping and uplifting, and the most extraordinary track I’ve heard in a while.
Updated 2013-03-07: Replaced link with Matthew E. White’s own webpage - thanks et!
For example, I’m listening to ‘Big Love’ while writing this, and bopping around so much that it’s hard to type. ↩︎
I first listened to Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’ on my Walkman while I did my brother’s paper round for him, and still think of the stark contrast between comfortable suburbia and the terrifying lyrics every time I listen to it. ↩︎
And really made me want a whisky toddy. ↩︎