M.G. (Matt) Boulter is one of that rare breed of musicians with a CV as long as your arm; indeed, a list of who he hasn’t worked with would probably be shorter than a list of those he has. Add in his work with The Lucky Strikes and, more recently, as a member of Emily Portman’s touring band and the only downside to this impressive catalogue seems to be that it leaves him little time for his own projects: his new album, With Wolves the Lamb Will Lie, is only his second solo album, following on from The Water And The Wave, which saw the light of day in 2013. Interestingly, going on the CD sleeve notes, he seems to have been working on With Wolves the Lamb Will Lie pretty much since then, presumably on an ‘as-and-when’ basis, but it’s been well worth the wait. Given that it’s been recorded in such a fragmentary way over such a long time, it’s testament to his musical vision that it all hangs together so incredibly well – and no doubt also as a result of a combination of the inherent quality of the songwriting, the production (by Andy Bell) and the performances of his guest musicians. Using a core trio of Toby Kearney (drums), Ben Nicholls (bass) and Thomas Lenthall (keyboards) lends coherence to the sound, while guest contributions from the likes of Jack McNeill (clarinet); Lucy Farrell and Neil McSweeney (vocals), with strings by Helen Lancaster (violin, viola), Charlie Heys and Ruth Angell (violin) and Emma Capp (cello) add welcome splashes of colour throughout.
Matt’s talent as a storyteller shines through the lyrics to the opening ‘Sean Or Patrick’, a tale of a chance encounter with a homeless Irish man on the mean streets of London. It’s a vivid word picture of a proud, embittered man – “Sean or Patrick, it’s up to you” – to whom life has been unremittingly harsh, set to an arrangement infused with a strong Country flavour, thanks mostly to Matt’s own pedal steel playing and the bony clatter of Toby’s percussion. But it’s the refrain which sticks in your mind, ghostly harmonies blowing through the repeated phrase “Bury my bones so I may see the sky”, it’s a quietly angry indictment of the way a so-called civilised society can, and does, damage its most vulnerable members, the dreamers and drifters, the lost rebels with no cause.
‘The Sight Of The Cellar’ has an intriguingly ambiguous lyric; superficially it’s about an “ordinary man… With deliveries To shops dark and empty” although its theme, that of being endlessly on the road, an outsider looking in on other people’s lives as he passes by in the night, could just as easily be applied to the life of a working musician. Matt’s writing has a grittiness, a realism, which brings the subject into sharp focus while, musically, the arrangement’s uptempo rhythm adds tension through its juxtaposition with a sweet major/minor key modulation, conveying the emotion of its subject matter without needing to resort to artifice or cliché.
Occupying a space somewhere between Americana and chamber-folk, ‘His Name Is Jean’, is an elegy from the point of view of a parent grieving for a lost, grown-up son. Matt tempers the poignancy of the lyric with the sweetest of bridges, while the string arrangement, woven like flowers in a wreath through the pared-back combination of Matt’s acoustic guitar and Ben’s double bass, is heartbreakingly sad. A real highlight of the album, despite (or perhaps because of) its difficult subject.
The downbeat mood continues through ‘Carmel Oakes’, a slow, thoughtful ballad laced with some lovely harmonies. Lyrically, it’s a meditation on the friends we make and move on from, sometimes reluctantly, but always hoping that, whatever life may bring, it will be kind. The following ‘Lalita’ delves deeper into this theme of absent friends, this time from the perspective of an older musician and a younger woman, a dedicated fan of his band who would follow the tours from town to town. It’s juxtaposed with a brief reminiscence of one of the man’s neighbours who met an untimely end while on holiday; the two seemingly disparate memories together reminding us of the fragility and preciousness of all our lives. The arrangement is full of unexpected sounds: an improbably rattly bass, some lovely vibraphone from Toby, the distant hiss of handheld percussion, lead acoustic guitar flourishes panned hard right and a string section for which the word ‘lush’ doesn’t even come close to doing justice. A slow-burner, this one, quirky but with its heart in the right place, it’s possibly my favourite track on the album.
The lyrical preoccupation with the transitory nature of life, the universe and everything continues in the uptempo ‘The Last Song’, the video for which was recently premiered here on Folk Radio UK. Musically, it moves at a fast pace, propelled by Toby’s rapidfire drums and Ben’s insistent bass, while the frenetic fingerstyle guitar breaks in the style of a banjo-player are a clever touch which works well.
Set in Seville, ‘The Defeatist’s Hymn’ is a first-person telling of someone apparently murdered by “the black hand gang” and the victim’s memories and regrets. It’s a somewhat cryptic lyric, given that Spain’s crime rate is among the lowest in Europe; nevertheless, Matt’s imagery is highly evocative. The arrangement, built around a midtempo, descending chord sequence is as enigmatic as the lyric; studded with bleeping guitars and swaying like leaves on the trees in the orange groves, it’s spacious and maintains a sense of unease and restlessness throughout.
‘Someday The Waves’ is a delicate, fingerstyle acoustic piece with an introspective lyric musing on “other dreams and false memories”, set off to perfection by Matt’s understated lap steel guitar break in the middle. It’s followed by another low-key tune, ‘Brother Uncles’, the arrangement and production of which seem deliberately lo-fi. Sprinkled with breathy samples, it builds slowly, allowing Jack McNeill’s clarinet time and space to bloom, before ending with a short ambient soundscape of distant tinkling percussion.
Matt’s penchant for opaquely introspective lyrics is given free rein on ‘Starlings’ although, while I won’t even pretend to understand the song’s meaning, the arrangement is a thing of great beauty. As light as a feather, it ripples like the low autumn sun through the leaves of a tree while Jack’s bass clarinet adds just enough texture and definition to make its presence felt without overpowering the composition. By contrast, the lyric of the penultimate ‘Love Trees’ couldn’t be clearer and its dreamy, understated arrangement is a perfect match. Toby’s vibraphone adds lushness to Matt’s multitracked guitars (one electric, one acoustic) and Lucy Farrell’s harmonies are as sweet as sugar.
Toby and Lucy return for the final track, ‘Let Light In’, its lyrical optimism matched by its harmonies (Neil McSweeney also guests on backing vocals) and underpinned by Ben’s double bass. It closes with a short but lovely clarinet coda from Jack, duetting with himself and providing a gentle but definite full stop, both to the lo-fi ambience of the song as well as to the album.
With Wolves the Lamb Will Lie balances richly detailed lyrics with accessible arrangements which present M.G. Boulter’s musical vision intact. Anyone looking for instruction in the dark art of writing meaningful and original songs would be well-advised to give this a good, close listen; meanwhile the rest of us will be over here, losing ourselves in Matt’s music.
Review by: Helen Gregory
With Wolves The Lamb Will Lie is released 29 January via Harbour Song Records.