“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.”
Matthew Good may not have picked up a guitar until his twenties, but I suspect at this point, he couldn’t put it down if he tried. A prolific songwriter — one of the country’s most respected — his latest album marks his tenth full-length album, and that’s not counting a live album, a greatest hits/rarities package, multiple demo recordings and EPs. While Good’s book would suggest otherwise, Arrows Of Desire (available now) finds him with plenty to reflect upon.
One of Matt’s strengths lies in the ability to take minutiae of a complex issue and express it in such a way that the larger picture creeps in, hinted at yet ultimately for the listener to discover. Opener and album namesake “Arrows of Desire” is one such layered composition, with its inner monologue of a lethal projectile (the titular arrow) set to song. This notion — that of the inanimate personified and left to reflect upon the hands setting it in motion — makes for fascinating music on its own. It’s when one steps back and understands the history of that phrase (William Blake’s preface to “Milton”, known perhaps better by the English as the hymn “Jerusalem”) that the web of sociopolitical ties comes into focus. It makes for a deceptively straight-up rock combo with second track “Via Dolorosa” and its reference to the Stations of the Cross hinted at for the unknowing (“Wait ’til I get my crown on… Wait ’til I get my cross on straight,” Good calls out over a relentless, building outro).
Reflection — be it upon one’s heritage or the experience of music as a youth — is a theme of the album. Where previous outing Lights Of Endangered Species was an experimental, exploring analysis of humanity and its role in its destruction or survival, Arrows Of Desire is a throwback to the garage rock honesty of decades lost, a study of history and a spirited call to arms against our repetition of it. “We’re Long Gone” evokes early Springsteen with its ‘lost hometown’ vignette and an infectious melody that deserves to jam out live for several more minutes. “So Close” speaks clearest of the shifts in the music industry and the experience of a fan, a plea to “Keep us alive on 45/It might mean more than anything.“
Art is a critical form of protest, and also defense. Good understands this and consequently has never wielded a cautious songwriting pen. From early demos like “The Bombmaker” to “Guns Of Carolina” on his latest, the world is always in his lens. “Guns of Carolina” is perhaps one of the strongest tracks, hitting hard with a soft, harmonic fist: “That car crash where you’re laid out like Arlington.” It resonates in a way best described as “music to drive a funeral procession to”. The subtlety of this track is striking when juxtaposed with 2004’s White Light Rock And Roll Review and its anti-Bush slugs to the proverbial jaw, although Arrows Of Desire ultimately feels like the older, wiser brother of the aforementioned album. For me, it’s more effective.
For those who’ve been drawn to the more personal tracks in the back catalogue, there are more personal touches here as well. “Mutineering” is a natural companion to LOES tune “Non Populus” with its sense of regret and desire to protect others from reality. “Oh my love, you steer clear of it,” comes the warning, “‘Cause they don’t got you yet.” More poignant and raw is album closer “Letters In Wartime”, the longest track and arguably one of Good’s best creations to date. Rich in imagery, the political themes of the album draw in tight upon the personal lens, and one is left with a sense that the entire album, in a way, has been more personal than a first listen reveals. “It’s the only way I can tell you,” he confesses. “Like letters in wartime do.”
This is where we come to understand why Matthew Good remains a powerful force in our music scene: the music may come fast and bi-annually, but it is never forced or insincere. It is always from the heart, permeating every moment of intense vocals. It is all the more intense this album, thanks to his decision to bring his current band into the studio — a move that peppers the recordings with the magic of a live performance.
Arrows Of Desire is a bit of mental origami, meant to be unfolded and creased at the listener’s whim. What you take away from it will ultimately be of your own design, but one thing is certain: it will be impossible to forget.
Highlights: “Letters In Wartime”; “Guns Of Carolina”; “We’re Long Gone”; “So Close”
Final Grade: A
Matthew Good embarks on a Canadian tour this Fall, including a November 1st stop in Toronto. Visit the official site for tour dates and ticket information.
For an incredible look at the album, check out Indie88’s recent interview and Unplugged session with Matt, helmed by Alan Cross.