Iain Matthews has come to be something of a past master of the concept in this album title. Not the highest profile member of Fairport convention—Sandy Dennis and Richard Thompson hold that designation—the singer/musician has nevertheless continued to maintain a more than respectable profile for decades, through his assembly of Matthews Southern Comfort, Plainsong and a solo career that, in introducing his wryly titled The Art of Obscurity, may now be giving way again to collaborative endeavors.
Not that this, his first album released in America for fifteen years, doesn’t highlight his talents by utilizing those of others. Egbert Derix is co- author of all but four tunes here, providing lyrics to match the fragile beauty of Matthews’ melodies such as that of the doleful but optimistic opening number “Ghost Changes.” Even the slightly more cheery “When I Was A Boy,” radiates an evanescent quality that’s a direct reflection of the author’s voice. The singing on “Time Zone Cowboy” mirrors the images the words contain (in turn reflective of the cover art on the enclosed booklet) in such a haunting way that the vocals almost turn into another instrument in the arrangements: perhaps no higher compliment can be paid Matthews in this regard.
Bradley Koop helps forge a tightly-knit creative unit for The Art of Obscurity by not only playing acoustic and electric guitars throughout, but also engineering and producing the recording sessions. Insular as this approach is, it does create an unusually direct intimacy further emphasized by the absence of drums (which, even on the upbeat The Emperor’s New Clothes,” don’t seem to be missing). With only guitars, bass, and keyboard courtesy of David Webb (largely organ to promote the fluidity of the tunes and the ensemble), the performances resonate outward and inward.
As such, a listener may require as much history as Iain Matthews to fully grasp and appreciate how he evokes the subtleties of the passage of time. But that’s less of a limitation than it might seem given how deeply these songs can penetrate in their quietly understated way. The craftsmanship that sculpts this artful song cycle is admirable enough on its own terms—the musicians sound like they are in the room as the cd plays—and even if some of the words, like those of “Music,” sound somewhat stilted, Matthews’ gentle delivery, as much as his vulnerable voice, renders them warmly personal.
The Art of Obscurity, then, turns into close to an hour within the confines of the soul, with Iain Matthews’ songs and voice the gateway and his accompaniment the varied means of exploring such contemplative atmosphere. If the intimations of mortality sound ominous within tracks such as “Ash in the Wind” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” those shadows are merely viable contrast to the enlightenment that otherwise arises from this artist’s rarefied reflection.
Track Listing: Ghost Changes ; When I Was A Boy ; Music ; Time Zone Cowboy ; Ash in the Wind ; The Letter (1944); In Paradise ; Ode for Jackie Paris ; The Emperor’s New Clothes ; Pebbles in the Road ; The Sweet Hereafter ; Home (pt. 2).
Personnel: Iain Matthews: acoustic guitar, vocals; Bradley Koop: acoustic and electric guitars; David Webb: keyboards; Lorrie Singer: background vocals.