If Scott Matthews has been on a journey, you could say that the path hasn’t always been the most easy to navigate. The highs and lows of being coveted and ultimately frustrated by record company woes may not be a unique tale, but the good news is that he’s emerged all the stronger for it. If the 2011 release of What The Night Delivers was the sound of him dusting himself off and picking himself up again, then Home is the sound of the songwriter reborn, with artistic vision restored. The result is a record of great depth, but one built on the most simple premise of having a set of great songs and some of the most glorious melodies you’re likely to hear. Welcome home Scott.
It’s incredible to think that it’s eight years since the release of Scott Matthews debut album Passing Strangers. Originally released on San Remo records, an independent label specially founded as a vehicle to get Scott’s music into the wider world. For one reason and another, it proved to be a harder job than it probably should have, but as Zane Lowe in particular, but others as well started to pick up on the track Elusive, the momentum started to shift in Scott’s favour. So much so in fact, that Island Records interest was piqued, leading to a licensing deal being struck.
At the time, I got quite close to Scott, not on a personal level, but as an artist, who I would go well out of my way to see. I had insight into some of the problems of getting the distribution and retail chain to respond to a burgeoning audience hungry for Scott’s music. The gigs were selling out and the venues getting bigger, as the steady drip feed of radio play stirred the pot. The intervention of Island therefore seemed like a very timely thing and the fact that they allowed Scott to carry his San Remo label imprint with him suggested the esteem with which he was held.
As is so often the case it proved a mixed blessing. Island certainly managed to make the most of the groundswell of interest and re-releasing the album, took it into the Top 50 of the album chart, selling a very healthy quantity in the process. Beyond that, however, they didn’t quite know what to do and compounded by a rapidly changing climate of music sales in general things got a little sticky.
Scott’s Elusive also won the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically And Lyrically and he continued to play some decent sized gigs, even supporting the Foo Fighters, but it would be 2009 when the follow up, Elsewhere, was released. Generally regarded as a darker record, it none the less contained some great new songs and all of his signatures were still intact, both musically and lyrically, although perhaps the production, which created a lush orchestration, added to the weight of a record that failed to fly. Unable to create immediate commercial success and against a backdrop of constant internal turbulence, Island’s interest waned and frustration set in all round.
The deal fell apart, which is a shame, both in that Scott seemed perfect for Island given their historical roster and you could easily find a place next to John Martyn and Nick Drake for his achingly tender songs and blurred vocal style. The label made its mark by giving artists room to be creative and the music and the artist always came first. Then the climate was changing and as the end of the fist decade of the new millennium swung into view, the ideas of a career in music, artistically or as part of a record company had taken a battering.
Scott was not alone in the fallout, although the Live In London album, released in 2010 put him back into a stripped down spotlight performance, with just cellist Danny Keane for company. As an antidote to the big sound of Elsewhere and a reminder of what a good singer and guitarist he is, it worked. Arguably, What The Night Delivers, which followed a year later was actually his best record. On the back of the frustrations and with the withdrawal of Island’s backing, it didn’t propel him back to into the limelight, but in contrast to Elsewhere, Scott immediately sounded relaxed and the songs and the production were cohesive and sympathetic. If it passed you by, it’s well worth seeking out.
The proof of that is that the new record, Home, is without shadow his best and also feels like a natural extension of its predecessor. The sense of artistic growth is restored and the continuity feels both natural and joyful to hear. It’s as if the background hubbub has been silenced and you are able to simply concentrate on a great set of songs. For one thing, Scott’s voice has never been better and his guitar playing, long underrated, is as good as it gets. To cap it all, the arrangements and production do just enough and the sound is at times breathtakingly beautiful.
In part that must be down to the fact that as the title suggests, this record was made in Scott’s home studio. In some ways it’s also perhaps a return to where he started, with his own musical ideas to the fore, much as his original demos would have been. It’s enigmatically described as being, “Mixed and mastered for ‘The Huntsmen’ for Poseidon.” Long term collaborator Danny Keane is involved, earning a co-writing credit for one song, drummer Sam Martin, who played on the last album is here again and Scott’s brother Darren plays piano on two songs, with flautist Mat Taylor and trumpet and flugelhorn from Ray Butcher. Otherwise the instrumentation is down to Scott on guitars, bass, piano, harmonica and percussion.
Right from the start, Virginia sets the tone, with a less is more aesthetic and frankly what more do you need. The track is built around the warm timbre of Scott’s acoustic guitar and Danny’s cello. Scott’s voice is like a velvet drape, softly slipping around the octaves as it draws you under its luxuriant touch. The melodic interplay sounds liberated as the song moves in waves, as if rippling to shore, while the subtle layers float in and out, creating an ambient and expansive soundscape. At the same time it’s hushed and private one on one experience between singer and listener, as home here asserts itself as the theme, with the opening line suggesting, “Home is where your heart is forever yearning.” Scott continues, “It’s been years since you went away,” expanding the narrative to fill the aching melody.
The Outsider continues in much the same vein, although the layering of guitar and voice in particular create levels of harmonic interplay that are extraordinary. The harmonica is used, but takes on an unusual voice within the mix and at times the reverb is cavernous, as if to emphasise the pull of the, “Lonely road,” the journey and the need to make it, even when it has to be done alone. The way the melody resolves in the chorus is simply sublime.
The first appearance of what you might call the traditional rhythmic section of bass and drums occurs on Sunlight. It’s a subtle shift, but the track grows and grows towards an epic climax. Again the orchestration is all about the layering and the ambience, while Scott demonstrates that’ he’s a nifty bass player, anchoring the song as it takes off. Despite the title and the soaring instrumentation, there is something churning underneath as Scott cautions, “I’m giddy in flight, I’m losing the site, of the good times and what matters most.”
The Clearing comes as a surprise, a lovely instrumental, with layers of flute multi-tracked to subtly shape its tone, guitar and piano and the horn and a wordless voice locked together pushing the mid section ever upwards. Again there is a lovely resolution and the piece sets up an intriguing possibility of Scott as a composer.
The start of The City And The Lie then returns us to just guitar and voice, but as throughout it’s the way that the extra details are overlaid that creates the magic. It’s all so carefully constructed, almost painstaking in detail, yet sounding so effortless and natural with it. The song perhaps revisits the same territory as City Headache, with a feverish unease prompted by the pressure of urban life.
Perhaps the answer lies in the escape suggested by The Night Is Still Young, although in typically Scott style, the intent behind the lyrics is a little harder to divine than that, as the mood seems to shift several times. Another track to feature drums and as with all of Home, layers and layers of sounds, overdubbed guitars and more that set up little melodic tangents and counterpoints. Again though there is a wonderful way the melody resolves, only to take off again, ultimately reaching a curious vocal finale.
If there’s a melancholy that hovers in the background to most of the record, its most apparent in the haunting 86 Floors From Heaven. The track is over seven minutes long and uses that time frame to the full as the way that the overdubbed voices work above the muted piano and bass adds a ghostly grace, with another surprising coda. The mood continues through Dear Angel, with its descending guitar figure, and then into Mona. Although the sorrows are sweetened by further melodic invention and the little instrumental details, the mood is one of questions fraying at the edges, although once there are also glimpses of hope for positive answers.
Much as the melodies resolve, the mood does too, guiding us back to where we started. Firstly there’s the wistful reminiscences of Running Wild. The careful construction gives a lush treatment, to the sepia view, suggestive of watching old home cinema. It’s echoed the comforting embrace of Let’s Get You Home, which sounds almost playful, albeit with an odd sonic ambience that sound like an old projector whirring through a reel of film.
This is an endlessly inventive album with a complexity and lyricism that will stand patient repetition and doubtless reveal something new with each successive play, yet at the same time sounding coherent and unforced. So, whether you have been with Scott from the start, wavered along the way, or are a newcomer, the journey has always been about getting Home. They say it’s where the heart is and you give yours on the way in, you’ll find it so much richer on your way out.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released 10 Nov 2014 via San Remo
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SAT – Nov 29 – Birmingham, Town Hall
SUN – Dec 07 – Diepenheim, Holland, Cultuurcentrum Herberg de Pol
TUE – Dec 09 – Amsterdam, Paradiso
WED – Dec 10 – Paris, Divan Du Monde
THU – Dec 11 – Brussels, Belgium, AB club
SUN – Feb 22 – Bristol St George’s
MON – Feb 23 – Manchester Royal Northern College of Music
THU – Feb 26 – London Cadogan Hall
FRI – Feb 27 – Brighton St Georges Church