Scott Matthews is one of those artists I just can’t imagine not being there. His solemn, haunting vocal style has been winning over fans ever since his acclaimed debut, Passing Stranger, was released in 2006. Back then, amid the acoustic singer-songwriter boom of the 2000s, there emerged a handful of acts that may no longer make huge commercial waves but still continue to make exquisite, interesting records. New releases from the likes of Polly Paulusma, Tom Baxter and Tom McRae - all contemporaries of Matthews - are a comforting reminder that great songwriters can and do endure, regardless of time or fashion. A new album from Scott Matthews (or any of the above) is the sort of thing that, even before I hear it, helps to restore my ailing faith in humanity.
The Great Untold, Scott Matthews’ sixth LP, is his most pared-down to date but this is not at the expense of the care and complexity for which his records are known and loved. Firmly on the backburner are the sprawling instrumental textures and impassioned Jeff Buckleyisms of 2009’s Elsewhere; The Great Untold instead follows the more intimate, acoustic path of the man’s last three releases: What the Night Delivers and Home (Parts I & II) and takes things further still, spurning as it does drums and electrickery of nearly every kind. The result is a record that sounds exposed yet retains intrigue as musical twists and harmonic curveballs are thrown often, and to great effect. On top of this, Matthews affecting vocal helps to breed an atmosphere of night, of stillness and of reverence that is quite irresistible.
The album finds Scott on the verge of parenthood and the opening title track serves as a letter to his yet unborn first-born. The deft, considered fingerpicking matches the song’s spirit of hushed optimism and sets the tone for what is to come. For the uninitiated, it exemplifies Matthews’ pastoral songwriting style, which is informed by The Beatles, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson. Not a bad set of musical ancestors to draw on. The soft pulse and fingerpicked electric guitar of second track ‘Lawless Stars’ stops things getting too cosy too quickly and the brooding darkness of the song, adorned with Matthews’ trademark double-tracked vocal, threads back to the nocturnal moodiness of both Elsewhere and What the Night Delivers. It fades into an uncredited instrumental which serves as a bridge back to the acoustic guitar and piano which form the backbone of the rest of the record.
‘Silence’ is a Paul McCartneyesque hymn to peace and tranquillity (ironically, these are things that Matthews may well struggle to find as a new father) before the lush twelve string of the excellent ‘Something Real’ lands us halfway between the croonery of Richard Hawley and the passion of Thom Yorke. Current single ‘Cinnamon’ follows and permits more softly strummed electric guitar and the lightest possible sprinkling of percussion before the riches of ‘As The Day Passes’ are unfurled, its harmonised vocal perfectly spread across the galloping, triplet-ridden guitar and chiming piano. The track is as feisty as the record gets before we’re swiftly put back on message with the beautifully close lullaby ‘Goodnight Day’.
The sharp-eared will detect an actual drum kit on ‘Song to a Wallflower’, a portrait of a shy loner. And - shock, horror! - It happens again on its companion piece, ‘Daydreamer’, though you’d be forgiven for not really noticing the brushes tickling away. The warm waltz of ‘Chapters’ with harmonica, playful slide guitar and more perfectly-pitched harmonies brings the album to a laid-back conclusion.
Without being especially folky, Scott Matthews makes satisfyingly English-sounding music. Seldom have such philosophical, soul-searching songs been sung with so much humility and politeness as they are here. You can almost hear the man looking modestly down at his shoes. What balances out all the soft-stepping gentleness, though, is the depth and weight of the material. There’s nothing florid or frivolous happening here and the set of ten songs is certainly the tightest and most focused of Matthews’ career. The Great Untold, rather like a newborn baby, is a delicate and fragile thing. If you can be still and hold it close for long enough, you’ll see it’s also a thing of wonder, possibility and undiscovered magic.
Review by Rich Barnard.