(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #49 – released September 26, 1995)
Track listing: Fanfare / Forging Plastic Pain / Soul Nation Select Them / Faith To Clay / Angels For Crime / Fried Out Broken Girl / Lust Takes Time / Hop and Tickle / Three-Cornered Moon / Distant Mother Reality / Flight and Lion / Poisons Will Pass Me / Sincere Sensation / Fanfare (reprise)
Some albums you fall for so immediately that you feel forever transformed, as if you could divide your life into two neat periods of before and after first hearing it. Other albums (in fact, most albums) do not have such a direct impact—they may require multiple spins to resonate or even make sense. In general, if nothing’s sticking after two or three plays, I’ll move on because there’s no shortage of new music out there for anyone to sift through and discover.
Still, once in a great while, an album I’ve listened to sporadically over time will suddenly, surreptitiously click into place for me. It’s happened with such disparate releases such as Nilsson Sings Newman, Erotica and Tiger Bay—all albums I enjoyed but didn’t truly love until something in them shifted for me and they no longer felt merely agreeable but absolutely essential (in Tiger Bay’s case, it was when hearing its original UK version). That this sort of thing rarely occurs is why it can seem so profound, especially when you consider the utter simplicity of just hearing something differently.
I first heard Eric Matthews via the video for “Fanfare”, his debut album’s lead track and single on MTV’s 120 Minutes, a Sunday night indie music roundup I watched religiously in the mid-90s. Jubilant, faintly retro guitar pop tinged with a McCartney-esque bassline and a trumpet solo (played by Matthews himself) providing the hook (and clearly influencing the title), “Fanfare” was a heck of an introduction. Matthews’ multi-tracked, breathy choirboy vocals, reminiscent of Colin Blunstone (of The Zombies) were novel at a time dominated by rawer, louder, grittier singers. The Beatles and XTC fan in me responded positively to “Fanfare”; although it never crossed over from college to commercial alternative radio, I still remember it as a definitive single from its time, even if it sounds completely out of step from it.
Within days of seeing the video, I picked up a copy of It’s Heavy In Here and was… well, not disappointed, exactly, but there clearly wasn’t another “Fanfare” on it (apart from its brief, acoustic guitar-and-voice reprise at the end). In between, you had a dozen pretty songs—mostly stripped-down guitar pop, occasionally augmented with strings, woodwinds, an organ here, a horn there, and of course, Matthews’ distinct voice, as if he were trying to channel not just Blunstone but such winsome, psychedelia-era groups as The Association and The Left Banke. It all sounded pleasant enough, but where “Fanfare” was a striking, welcoming call to arms, the other songs tended to turn inward, obscuring potential hooks with trickier chord changes and thorny if not altogether clunky lyrics (have you ever spoken the words “Forget the gold of growing old” aloud?).
And yet, I appreciated Matthews’ attempt at a classier, classical music-enhanced modern rock. Isolated moments, such as the gliding, wordless trumpet and piano sections of “Fried Out Broken Girl” or the continually building strings on “Poisons Will Pass Me” were just too gorgeous to ignore (as if slyly gleaned from one’s subconscious). As previously stated, the entire record also sounded like none of its peers (coming out on edgy, grunge-centric Seattle label Sub Pop, no less). With alt-rock radio wearily grinding into formulaic malaise, dominated by a handful of overplayed artists (Alanis, Live, No Doubt, etc.) just like any top 40 station, It’s Heavy In Here served as a balm, a real alternative—obviously influenced by the past, but also curiously out of time. In fact, it could’ve been recorded anytime in the preceding 25-30 years.
From then on, I returned to the album occasionally, even liking Matthews’ slightly more lyrically (and also musically) straightforward follow-up, The Lateness of The Hour (1997). Still, it didn’t occur to me to reserve a place for It’s Heavy In Here on my first list of 100 favorite albums in 2004. Matthews himself disappeared for a while, re-emerging in the mid-00s with a trio of records (I’ve heard just one, 2006’s Foundation Sounds, which I dismissed as overly long and hook-deficient), then promptly vanishing again. In the meantime, I cultivated interest in the sort of chamber pop that inspired Matthews, absorbing records both old (The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle) and new (a few artists still to come in this project).
Sometime in the past decade, It’s Heavy In Here turned a corner for me. I don’t remember when, exactly, but with each spin (usually while at my office job), I felt a little more drawn to its sonic puzzle pieces. Qualities that once seemed obscure and tough to get a handle on, such as the unexpected way “Angels For Crime” just slows down and stops, unresolved or the uncharacteristically alien, high-pitched noise that weaves in and out of “Distant Mother Reality” (actually a “tenor recorder”) now felt like subjects for further research, rather than deterrents to be brushed away. I also began noticing nice little transitions in the album’s sequence, like the dramatic, effective pause between the Simon and Garfunkel-like, guitar-and-harpsichord etude “Faith to Clay” and crisp-sounding-but-also-softly-glowing “Angels For Crime”.
However, I only really “got” this album when I paid less attention to its lyrics. I don’t want to disavow what lyrics lend to a song, but if you have no trouble enjoying and finding meaning in music whose lyrics are in a language you don’t understand, then words decidedly aren’t always essential. That’s not to say Matthews isn’t capable of the occasional good couplet (like “this heaven it needs fixing / looks so much like hell”) but his overall sound is compelling yet grounded enough that he almost doesn’t even need lyrics for these songs to register; this wouldn’t work if his melodies weren’t so nimble and complex or the arrangements so intricate and luxuriant.
Naturally, the orchestral parts of It’s Heavy In Here command the most attention. Some tracks, like “Soul Nation Select Them” and “Angels For Crime” start off in the usual guitar-bass-drums mode (often played by Matthews and ex-Jellyfish member Jason Falkner) but are eventually seasoned with flute and clarinet interjections or the sudden appearance of a string quintet for a few bars. Other songs, like “Fried Out Broken Girl” and “Poisons Will Pass Me” do away with the rock trio instrumentation entirely; in the context of a rock album, they would normally seem like outliers, but tonally they fit almost seamlessly into the entire melancholy fabric. Even “Three-Cornered Moon”, a mostly instrumental waltz heavy with harpsichord, muted trumpet and strings feels like it belongs, in part because it’s so exquisitely beautiful but also in how it just seems to linger there in the air, repeating the same delicate melody to the point where it almost achieves a Zen-like bliss.
For all his arty pretensions, Matthews can be just as appealing when he leaves the orchestral stuff out. “Forging Plastic Pain” slowly fades in on a knotty, repeated guitar figure that’s not worlds away from one off a Pavement song; it also has a multi-tracked electric solo that could’ve come from a much mellower Brian May. “Lust Takes Time” gains momentum from a two-chord angular riff that’s equal parts Talking Heads and The Smiths. “Flight and Lion” contains jazz chords and a sparkling piano solo, yet it’s not really jazz but subdued, ever-so-slightly sinister balladry. “Hop and Tickle” almost makes me want to recant my earlier claim that the album doesn’t have another “Fanfare”, for its bright, catchy jangle pop now feels awfully close to it.
In considering what makes it so special, I keep returning to the idea that It’s Heavy In Here doesn’t belong to any singular moment in time. Sure, arguably only in the mid-90s could Matthews have put out a record like this on such a major indie label and get MTV play. It endures precisely because it doesn’t sound anything at all like 1995, or 1975, or 2015, for that matter. What Matthews did, and it’s something I believe not many artists are capable of, was to make a debut album that was a genuine expression of his aesthetic and considerable talent, forgoing trends while remaining true to his influences. You sense this is exactly the album he wanted to make and I can’t help but admire him for that, plus the likeliness that it will sound just as fresh and untethered in another ten or twenty years.
Next: A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular.