Monday, July 15, 2013

Album Review: Matt Nathanson - Last Of The Great Pretenders

Album Rating: A-
Nobody likes to talk more about love than heartbroken men with guitars. If one of these men shows up at your housewarming party or your grandmother’s funeral, you better hide anything with strings from sight; otherwise, the odds are better than good you’ll be there for the next four hours as you hold his hand through a series of flings, betrayals, and heartbreaks. But what makes or breaks a singer-songwriter when he’s singing (and songwriting) about matters of the heart? After all, we make faces at our beanie-clad cousin behind his back, but somehow John Mayer still sells millions of records. As Last of the Great Pretenders demonstrates, reaching out to listeners may be the deciding factor: even if its subject matter paves the road too traveled, Matt Nathanson’s latest is an invigorating ride. It crackles with poetry, electricity, and emotional heft.

From the onset, all of the singer-songwriter staples are laid on the table: “Earthquake Weather” makes this abundantly clear. Piano chords jammed together in a series of percussive pladonks? Check. Big, boisterous drum stomps? Check. A chorus melody so intuitive a four-year-old could pick it up? Check-a-roo. So yeah, you’ve heard it all before, but the interesting part is how gritty and textured and not-at-all-precious Nathanson makes it sound. The guitar lines have an untamed ferocity to them, as if they would consume you whole the moment you yanked out your headphones. It’s the main act that’s key here. His voice is weathered with experience but drenched in sunshine, one that lets him coo about how natural being an asshole comes to somebody “as good as you" without actually coming off as one. The intense sense of bitterness permeating Nathanson’s sound is a fitting antidote to his natural sweet tooth, and Last of the Great Pretenders earns a lot of emotional nuance for its willingness to explore murkier territory.

For all the talk of bitterness, however, this pill goes down surprisingly easy, with Nathanson showing some impressive indie-pop chops over the album’s eleven tracks. “Mission Bells” is easily the bounciest take on wistfulness you’ll hear in 2013. A nostalgia-tinged song tinged with minor melodies and distant oh-ohs echoing through a cloud of production fog, it’s nonetheless bursting with hooks stickier than taffy, ocean-size percussion, and intriguing melodic details on the periphery. The appeal of “Heart Starts” is far simpler: the moment I heard it, it went right on the playlist in my iTunes titled “STOMPY COUNTRY-ROCK SONGS.” (I don’t actually have this playlist. I should totally make it.) The heartbeat thumps of the bass and the buzz of click-clacks provide a wonderfully bold foundation for Nathanson to build a touching little plea to his love upon. "All I know is the world is filled with broken things / all I know with these walls I've built, I can't get to what you need" he sings with bravado, and the question becomes clear: does his pathetic situation make his emotions any less vital? It’s a juxtaposition Nathanson uses beautifully on Last of the Great Pretenders, pairing a bright, happy sensibility with his sadsack stories to illuminate the possibility of hope.

It also helps that unlike the John Mayers and Passengers of the world, Nathanson is plenty happy to rock out. Though “Annie’s Always Waiting (For The Next One To Leave)” is more straightforward than anything on Last of the Great Pretenders, it’s by far one of the most memorable tracks on the album. A rocker that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Yellowcard album, its whimsical chorus and narrative lyrical style convey the allure of disaffected ennui while the churn of the guitars hints at the desperation underneath. “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco” is a marvelously grand piece of rock for a song about time spent “in Berkeley basements with half-written books.” Nathanson’s soaring vocal performance is tempered with a reserved piano line and gentle guitar strums, and somehow it all washes over you peacefully, as if long ago, mosh pits joined banana splits and drive-in theaters in the scrapbook of innocent youth.

If Last of the Great Pretenders gets a lot right, occasionally it’s weighed down by its adherence to some of the less savory singer-songwriter tropes. One slight issue, though this is hardly exclusive to Mr. Nathanson, is an overreliance on the abstract “girl” to convey themes. On the otherwise charming “Kinks Shirt,” Nathanson’s emotions about the girl in said shirt never materialize beyond “the way she walks, the way she talks” and somehow we’re expected to care. “Birthday Girl” touches on themes of community and family in its verses with poignancy and honesty only to make the puzzling choice to externalize those onto another unnamed girl in the chorus: a stronger, more appropriate conceit would have done the song justice. The album also flags a bit when Nathanson forgets to expand his personal experiences into relatable means. Nathanson’s attention to detail shines in his lyrics on “Sky High Honey,” but the song itself is a bit too narrow for listeners to relate.

More often than not, though, Last of the Great Pretenders achieves its goal of connecting with listeners. Nathanson is often as good a poet as he is a musician, building stories from personal experience but expanding them to show broader perspectives. Despite its seemingly minor theme of personal conviction, “Kill The Lights” glows as bright as the sun: there’s always something relatable about daring to pursue love, and Nathanson plays on the disconnect between idealism and reality with lyrics acknowledging both. Ballad “Sunday New York Times” is a standout, showing Nathanson’s gift for finding images anybody can relate to. “Farewell, December” closes a violent album on a quiet but poignant scene: our protagonist sharing the end of the year with a special person, alive for the “first time in his life,” the sky turning blue “like movie endings” do all the while.

And ultimately, Last of the Great Pretenders is perhaps best compared to a great film: we know these stories are fiction, that they’re exaggerated, fake, calculated to reach as many viewers as possible—but don’t they continue to enthrall us? Do they not have the power to move us, comfort us, remind us that we are not alone and this too shall pass? Music can be as binding as it is personal, and nobody gets more personal than the modern troubadour. With his latest, Matt Nathanson reminds us of just how much power a heartbroken man with a guitar really wields.

Artist Website

Track Listing
1. Earthquake Weather
2. Mission Bells
3. Last Days of Summer in San Francisco
4. Kinks Shirt
5. Sky High Honey
6. Annie’s Always Waiting (For The Next One To Leave)
7. Kill The Lights
8. Heart Starts
9. Birthday Girl
10. Sunday New York Times
11. Farewell, December


  1. This album IS indeed incredible...been listening to it for days since the tracks previewed on Pandora. My favorite from Nathanson thus far. And "Kill the Lights" is fantastic to run to.

  2. If only I weren't so lazy. Ah well. Thank you for taking the time to read and happy running!

  3. I disagree that Sky High Honey is too narrow to relate. I saw Matt in concert August 2013, and he described this song as thinking about what he left behind when moving from Boston to San Francisco, and all the "what if's." Granted, the details are not a perfect correlation, the emotion he evokes is so strong that I can easily relate this song to my experience in moving from Virginia to Indiana.