Alternative-rock band Moses Mayfield only ever made one full-length - 2007's The Inside, which, over a two-year period, became a personal classic for me. The lovelorn balladry and intensity-driven rock 'n' roll fit right alongside the music I was really into at the time, and several of those songs latched themselves onto memories from that era: from a sweltering summer season in 2007, or my tumultuous junior year of high school. And then the band called it quits, and the album, for whatever reason, fell out of rotation for me. The lead singer and creative force behind the band's music - Matthew Mayfield - went solo, delivering an EP before 2008 was out. It was a collection that I liked a lot, actually, complete with an acoustic guitar and cello re-imagining of "Element," one of my favorite songs off of The Inside, but after that, Mayfield fell off my radar. He was busy though, releasing a full-length and five other EPs between 2009 and 2011, and a few days ago, when I was doing my weekly perusing of new releases on iTunes, I stumbled upon A Banquet for Ghosts, and it all came flooding back.
I've always said that the ultimate test for a favorite artist is that, when you play a new album from them, it feels like you're re-convening with an old friend, whether they're offering up more of a familiar sound or embarking upon a sea of experimentation. Mayfield fits firmly in the former category, but he still unequivocally fits, and hearing the songs on A Banquet for Ghosts simultaneously took me back to the days when The Inside dominated my playlist and made me want to go back and pick up each individual EP I've missed. These songs tell a story, a story that can be reflected inside each and every one of us. It's the same story that began on "The Inside" and, assumedly, has continued throughout the rest of his work: of love and heartbreak, of the things we lose and the things we carry with us forever. Some may call that redundancy, but the greatest songwriters of all time, from Dylan to Springsteen, have embraced recurring themes, characters, and questions throughout their careers, and Mayfield does the same, offering us a window into his own life as it passes. That's why A Banquet for Ghosts is such a remarkable album: it's not because Mayfield is doing something we've never heard before; it's because he's doing precisely what we've heard before, but making it resonate again.
A Banquet for Ghosts is heavy on atmospheric ballads and fairly light on modern-rock aesthetics (those looking for a heavier sound should definitely dig up his work with Moses Mayfield). That said, Mayfield penned one of the most intense and involving rock songs of the last decade ("Control," from The Inside), and that side of his songwriting does occasionally manifest itself here, like on the eerie country-rock of "Track You Down," or the driving "Heart in Wire," where bitterness and heartbreak drip from every pore. The rest of the record drops the tempo and leaves the arrangements in acoustic form, but occasionally inventive production, Mayfield's raspy, weather-worn vocals, and the vast emotional palette he is able to express with them, result in a record that never grows stagnant or decreases in quality. Take the echoing, expansive soundscape that plays out in "Carry Me," or the fragile, piano intro that opens "Beautiful," a flawlessly-climactic penultimate number. Elsewhere, the slide guitars and gang vocals that assemble the backdrop to album opener "Ain't Much More to Say" drew me in immediately and wouldn't let me go, and the moment where Mayfield lets loose at the end of the haunting "I Don't Know You At All" is nothing short of staggering.
A Banquet for Ghosts will likely come across as a run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter record for those not already fond of the genre, but for me, Mayfield is among the very best in the game, willing to bare his soul and his scars for all to see. Perhaps it's my own personal connection to his music, or because of how hearing Mayfield's voice, in turns fragile and low, or strong and ringing with emotional force, takes me back in time, but these songs cut to a place that hasn't been reached by many songwriters this year, in any genre. Mayfield's lyrics rarely go beyond the well-trodden topics of love and loss, but that focus is pivotal to the record's singular visceral power and the unified story that it tells. Whether he's singing about the ghost of a former flame that he can't quite shake (the stunning "I'll Take What I Can Get"), or of the cautious, wide-eyed reunion of lovers that takes place in "Always Be You," we connect and we react. Mayfield's broken voice evokes memories of our own experiences, of the people we've left behind or never quite been able to, and it honestly doesn't matter if he's singing about the same girl in each of these songs or not: we hear his words, and we fill in the rest of these songs with pieces of our own lives. The result is a hard-hitting, unspeakably emotional record from an extremely talented independent artist who deserves a thousand times the attention he's gotten up to now. This is the type of album that made me fall in love with music in the first place, and while I can't (yet) say if it's his best work, I am confident, at least, that another slot of my end-of-the-year top five has been filled.