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John Martyn’s true musical heir, Wolverhampton-born Scott Matthews’ studio albums have always featured an array of top-flight musicians, Robert Plant among them. Expanding from the largely acoustic Passing Stranger to a fuller sound, his early live work was always about just him and a guitar, accentuating the blues veining his folk inclinations. For The Great Untold, his sixth, he’s gone back to that basic approach, recording the ten tracks at home and in various rural churches. There is no orchestration, no layered instrumentation, just, for the most part, sparse, minimal piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment and that glorious grainy, otherworldly falsetto weaving a pervasive atmosphere throughout what he describes as “a lot of soul searching”, but also addressing universal concerns and truths.
It opens on the title track’s ethereal notes, an introspective, reflective song about the changes he’s been through. He tells of “Trawling the blues under spotlights/Putting my world on the line” and the chapters yet to unfold in addressing the prospect of becoming a father: “You’ll be mother’s precious gold /And I’ll see new reasons through your eyes.”
That same mood infuses the six-minute, tonal shape-shifting Lawless Stars. Redolent of Nina Simon’s reading of Lilac Wine, it’s a song that again draws on the image of an unborn child in its contemplation of a search for calm and tranquillity. It’s mingled with thoughts of loss and separation in what, at the end of the day, seems to be essentially loneliness of the gigging musician number.
The dreamy strum and softly tumbling chorus melody of Silence once again seeks for serenity, “to realign my wayward mind”, to reconnect with self and find an escape from “the daily race you’ll never win/And find a space to reassemble any hopes misplaced.” Musically starlit in a melodically gossamer manner that conjures Jeff Buckley but also romantic reverie sequences from old movies, Something Real extends that idea of mental turmoil and the palliative power of love “to tame those wild thoughts again”. It also talks of the need to let down the defences because “When someone is bruised and scarred/They wear their armoured heart” as he pleads “Give me something real/That isn’t make believe”, the song swelling to a dying fall.
Swimming on gentle keyboard waves, the slow swaying Cinnamon is a particularly sensuous post-coital love song. He sings as “Your warmth in the cold/Lingers with the scent of cinnamon on my clothes/Our bodies radiate to the bone”, a song of sexual healing as “Starlings murmurate/Like clouds of cinders up in smoke.”
The sensory imagery of scent returns for As The Day Passes. It’s a heady, fingerpicked number of Andalusian melodic influences, but here the lyrics are darker. It conjures images of a lament for a love that’s died or remains unrequited, or of a soldier writing home to his mother in what is basically a heartfelt carpe diem message about not holding on to anger until it’s too late to forgive and forget.
Echoing such sentiments in its line “I forever long to be seen by your eyes/Your forgiveness is all I need”, as the title suggests, the simple guitar and piano arrangement of Goodnight Day is something of a nocturne. The lyrics again draw on the lonely life of the travelling musician on a desolate road where the rearview mirror shows only “a figure of a man/In the shadow for company.”
The final stretch begins with Song To A Wallflower, the spare opening drone gradually building to a relatively fuller arrangement that even has hints of percussion on a beautifully bittersweet poetic lyric about the song’s subject being crushed by a troubled past and the inability to articulate longings and feelings, seeking release in “a woman, paid by the hour…the faker with all the power” as Matthews folds in hints of Catholicism with the line about Mother Mary.
With its softly cascading chords, the dreamily fingerpicked Daydreamer brings us back to the album’s overarching theme of seeking escape from the harshness of reality, here emblemised in a woman with “her head stuck in a magazine/Full of posers… A distraction from the things that make her cry.” However, as the arrangement appropriately gathers to include drums and ebow, with Matthews multi-tracking his voice, this is not advocacy for numbing yourself against the world, of not wanting to wake and face it, but rather a reminder of what we let slip by while we “sleep walk on the sand”. It ends with the call to “smell the roses/Their scent will survive the fire.”
It ends with Chapters, a harmonica-coloured campfire waltzer about making connections, across distances, across time, and perhaps of the ripples music can make, the meanings it can impart as, in closing, he sings “Come alive and read my heart each time/There’s always a song in sight…”
The album has no major variations in mood, no great peaks and troughs in terms of tempo or tone, but the cumulative effect is at once stilling, affirmative and inspiring, as you emerge at the other end as if you’ve been soaking in a bath of aural dead sea salts. Matthews says that when he’s writing, “I’m almost hearing voices from The Masters and thinking: ‘Would they approve?’” Most assuredly.