Matthew and the Atlas stole my ear a while back when I first heard their song “I Will Remain”. A couple weeks ago I saw they had a debut album coming out, and was super pumped. Sadly that enthusiasm did not end up being exactly what I had hoped for, as the album differs from what I am used to hearing. Matthew took the group in a direction that differentiates from the folk path by a longshot. His incorporation of electronic synthesizers and beats kills the folk vibe much more than I wish to admit. I appreciate him trying new things, but the new album is so-so in its attempts to swoon a different genre than just folk.
Matthew and the Atlas opens up their debut album, four years after their initial signing with Communion Records might I add, with a traditional sounding folk melody with soft-spoken lyrics, and a seemingly over-generic background beat that portrays a reminiscent rock style. As the audio waves go back and forth nothing too catchy pops out, just some lyrics that try and fill a gap during the song and a chorus line of “Ooh”. “Into Gold” left a rather bitter taste and thankfully didn’t set a precedent for the whole album. But alas the inevitable banjo comes in out of nowhere and tries to tie the whole song together into a folkier mix of genres.
Out of nowhere “Pale Sun Rose” takes hold of the audio wheel, leaving “Into Gold” in the dust, the mouth unhinged as this newly found grace in Matthew and the Atlases arsenal fills the ear canal, an oddly synthesized output with original sounding lyrics masking it. It definitely works out well, and is extremely catchy to an open mind. Albeit certainly not for everyone, the new tune is upbeat and uplifting, and generally speaking something that makes the head rock back and forth. It’s not really what I would want from a folk album, but when the production quality is this pristine anything seems to go.
“To The North” seems to be Matthew’s attempt at showing his lyrical and vocal genius, shining it through the veils of the piano and metronome sounding beat. It is also the first song on the album to actually tell a story and not just have scatterbrain thoughts fill a blank canvas. There is meaning, depth to this track, speaking of someone who “in God [we] can trust” and how “in the morning he will be back home”, conveying an image of a trustworthy figure, always there when needed and to never be expected as an odd character. In a way this symbolizes Matthew and the Atlas as a whole, as they really didn’t seem to be doing much over the past few years, and now they finally have their album out after a couple of EPs, and how they can always be trusted to come through in the end.
A song that has been streaming online for a long period of time and has widely been available on YouTube is “Out of Darkness” and I still am not sure how I feel about it as a whole. On one hand it seems nice and wholesome and tries to speak to the soul about perception and vision, but on the other hand it follows this overly bland template styled background music with lyrics voiced over it, similar to how Into Gold felt. Around three minutes in there have been no lyrics for some time and it seems to keep going on with the same ambient background sound, but finally Matthew steps in and reins the song back in, trying to come to a stopping point like “Into Gold” did.
Trudging forward on this path there is a glitch in the flow, a song that seems to stand out for being much more experimental, confident in its place and that seems to be much due to Matthews’s lyrics.“Counting Paths” creates an ominous feeling and whenever Matthew steps in the blur of the song, it sharpens and the idealistic voice plunges to another level of folk. It’s a joyous plunge too, as Matthew knows when to step in and out with his lyrics in this piece and gives a confident aura about the song that makes it feel like his own; he leads the listener down his own path and tells his own story. It feels more natural than any other song on the album, and it gives off some great vibes about where Matthew and the Atlas could be headed.
Folk seems to have faded in the distance thus far in the album, and has taken a back seat to the more production styled audio, but “Everything That Dies” brings back the folk feeling. For the first half is filled with authentic piano backdrops with intermittent audio synths, but the song is once again largely driven by Matthew’s vivacious lyrics. His domineering voice takes control of the song, making it his own, molding it to his own desires and repeating the line “Everyone you know surely one day will die” but reassuring that “Everything that dies in some way returns”, giving a lot more in question than it does in answer. This seems to be the epitome of the album, asking deep theoretical questions such as “Do we really just stop existing, or is there a part of us that remains with everyone”. The song itself runs at its own pace, not going too fast or too slow, giving just the perfect amount of time for Matthew’s questions to sink in. Overall this song is extremely intoxicating and is probably a personal favorite from the album as a whole.
Once again “Nowhere Now” follows the same template as the other excess-production oriented songs. At some point it seems like someone should have stepped in and stated “This is good here, it imbues good parts of folk and authenticity and a nice touch of electronic sounding interjections,” but instead everyone just looked on and nodded their heads in agreement with the changes. It’s not that I’m not all for them experimenting; it’s just that I wish they would change how they experiment. Out of the ten songs, nearly half of them feel eerily the same with different tempos and new lyrics thrown over them.
Whoa, what’s this… “A Memory of You” starts off extremely quiet and slow, gradually gaining ground behind the ground-shaking lyrics. No real electronic experimentation and just plain folk styled singing. All of the band members seem to be joining in at key points in the lyrical progression, and it once again sounds natural. From Other Rivers I noticed the thing that I have most liked about Matthew and the Atlas, and that is how original their pieces generally are. They create a turtle shell around them when they record and it just feels like they don’t care if people will listen to what they create because for them it is natural. “A Memory of You” recreates this feeling so well, making it seem like Matthew has corralled the whole gang and just started to sing whatever is on his mind with other members combining their vocal chords in with his. This is what I wanted from their new album so much, and it seems to just be lacking in this department specifically.
Nearly a minute into “Old Ceremony” it seems to be back at the grinding wheel again. Nothing stands out about the song and it follows the monotonous grind that the rest of the cut and paste songs do. The lyrics could tell me about my future in these songs, and I still wouldn’t care because this emphasis on an evolving tune and the changing of style is far too drastic for lyrics to make anything in this song. Personally I hate saying that, but it’s the blunt truth. I would have been much happier if the sound booth would have just left the songs alone and let them be naturally more than one out of every three or so songs.
As the big finish, “Another Way” concludes the album just as I had been hoping for. It combines the album’s best mix of electronic and folk. Matthew and another voice in the background say “Someday I’ll stand as I was meant to stand. Someday I’ll speak as I should have spoke,” going deep in his lyrics again, not provoking much but just saying he wishes he was somewhere else rather than forced into his current position. These casual lines coupled with the snail pace of the song just mellow out the song and compliment the album itself quite nicely. Matthew closes up shop, metaphorically, in this song and doesn’t try to rush to the end. It doesn’t feel quirky or as perplexing in the end like some of the other songs on the album.
I recognize that artists that branch out deserve a decent amount of credit and when an artist tries something new I embrace it as much as possible. Maybe I may not like it, but I still give them respect for not being afraid to do what they want. Ultimately it’s their music and their decision, and it would be selfish to try and have it my way or any other way that is not theirs. Matthew and the Atlas create this internal war inside of me every time I listen to the album. The new music is great, but it seems like they were trying too hard on some songs to push this electro-folk styled music. The natural, purer sounds from songs like “I Will Remain” is what I was really expecting from this group’s new album, but again I give them credit for not being afraid to stand off to the side saying let’s do something different, outside of the lines of what is expected.