Monday, October 19, 2009
Vancouver - Matthew Good
SCQ Rating: 87%
In April of 2008, I posted some rough first impressions on a series of demos leaked to the internet, all of which were purportedly conceived and considered for Matthew Good’s follow-up to Hospital Music. While the post has been a regular attraction for curious Matthew Good fans this past year and a half, I hadn’t bothered to re-read those demo-inspired sentiments until tonight, as I expected to disagree now that those songs have been studio-recorded and widely released as Vancouver. Yet of the demos that made it to Good’s fourth solo album (‘Bad Pennies’ was wisely nixed), who could deny what convincing mannequins they are when compared to their finished compositions? Due to my usurping of those downloaded demos, Vancouver lacks a ton of surprises one would expect from a new release… meaning two things: (1) the many things I loved about the demos are bigger and better on this finished LP, and (2) a few aspects of the demos I shrugged about remain largely unchanged.
Skirting those speed-bumps for now, however, let’s get to Vancouver’s considerable punch; that after Hospital Music’s acoustic and autobiographical intimacy, Good has fought forward with his first unabashed rock record since 2004. Better yet, it’s his most impassioned set since Avalanche, again neighbouring personal reflections with political call-to-arms and sounding positively indebted to his subjects of choice: the state of human decency, the state of Matthew Good. It seems like a disclose and destroy strategy, touching upon his private life in delicate detail while swinging his social viewpoints wildly, but given the BC city’s recent lack of human decency (in a coarse nut-shell: the impending Olympics have instilled city workers with the “right” to forcibly displace homeless people, some of whom Good knows), Vancouver is a well-planned platform for Good to combine his seething disbelief with nearly two decades of lived-in memories. The weight of this back-story isn’t required reading but it provides additional chills for long-term Good fans. ‘Empty’s Theme Park’, for example, stories Good’s early adulthood living out of a basement apartment in Port Moody but beneath the surface level - of a rearview look at him and his city, growing up – ‘Empty’s Theme Park’ is a microcosm of many Vancouver themes, outlining Good’s own mental illness, then undiagnosed and torturing him, and how it connects him to a tragic percentage of homeless people. How deeply one wishes to tread into the record's subject matter is as optional as how much one chooses to read on his prolific, oft-outspoken website, but what’s important is that Good’s return to rock isn’t without purpose or real emotion.
That said, Vancouver doesn’t forget to bundle up some newborn Matthew Good classics. True to the demo’s potential, ‘The Boy Who Could Explode’ is a thrilling masterwork; grinding as if Good was scratching palm-stiff guitar strings like a train over tracks, the song blossoms into a symphonic anthem of unblinking assuredness. In fact, coupled with the intensity of opener ‘Last Parade’, this latest album nearly overwhelms in its first third. Luckily its mid-section settles into meat and potatoes rock on ‘Us Remains Impossible’ and the twilight acoustics of ‘On Nights Like Tonight’ (think a more personal, concise ‘Avalanche’). Considering Vancouver’s multiple candidates for “classic” status, the track that screams out the clearest is ‘A Silent Army In the Trees’, which digs into the gray area separating childhood war fantasies and real military life with some of Good’s most powerful lyrics to date. Interesting enough, ‘A Silent Army In the Trees’ and nearly every song on Vancouver is longer than it needs to be… yet as a testament to the songwriter’s charisma, the songs don’t suffer from their seven or nine minute lengths. If anything, their longer gestation time uncovers added significance for listeners, further removing Good’s work from radio-rock’s narrow-minded limitations and warranting him an audience all his own.
If there’s any miscalculation to be mentioned, it’s that some tracks feel longer than they are on account of tepid backing-band arrangements. When Good announced ‘Champions of Nothing’ would open Hospital Music at over ten-minutes in length, he was the first to comment that it was his longest composition. And while no single track on Vancouver crosses that milestone, their stationary performances (the unwavering percussion, the carbon copy guitar lines) lack spontaneity as if there was no backing-band, as if some of these tracks never evolved beyond the measured tracking that laptop recording insists upon. In that respect, a great song like ‘Vancouver National Anthem’ is reduced to a decent take and ‘Empty’s Theme Park’ borders on overkill. Yet ‘Champions of Nothing’, still Good’s longest song, feels far shorter than both of these tracks thanks to its shifting, surging dynamic; a few songs on Vancouver’s back-end could’ve used more of that.
Bearing in mind how bleak Hospital Music was, it’s something of a double-take to realize that Vancouver might just be the darker record. Brooding strings and ominous synths, while shaping the album’s sonic mood no differently than how the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra filled out Avalanche’s sound, menace beneath every track and Good’s lyrics recapture the visceral, angry mentality of Beautiful Midnight (granted, with a more mature, justified approach). The key to this permeating darkness is wielding it effectively, whether needling it into goofy social commentary on ‘The Future is X-Rated’ or sacrificing it altogether for vulnerability on ‘Empty Road’. Although Vancouver is most certainly his easiest solo album to get excited about, Good’s instrumental moodiness nearly gets the best of him.