Saturday, March 5, 2016

Matt Nathanson - The Last of the Great Pretenders

For a very long time, Matt Nathanson was a live performer first and an album maker second. That’s not an insult: it took Springsteen a few tries to really translate the emotion and energy of his live show into a studio recording, and the same happens for quite a few natural-born talents. Quite simply, the stage and the studio are two very different beasts, and mastering the latter when you are so used to performing in the former cannot possibly be an easy task. It took Nathanson longer than most to make the switch, though: the troubadour released his first full-length record, titled Please, in 1993, and while it showed off great songwriting, it sounded like a demo. Ten years and four releases later, he was still struggling: 2003’s Beneath These Fireworks was a move in the right direction, but almost all of his fans admitted that At the Point, the banter-infused live record he dropped two years later, was the better document of his talents. Nathanson just sounded looser and more alive in front of an audience, with nothing but an acoustic guitar to aid his sound. And it certainly didn’t hurt that he was an immensely charismatic performer with a knack for profane humor.

When Nathanson finally broke the studio curse and figured out how to translate his live energy into his recorded output, it was hardly a surprise that he broke through to the mainstream as well. In comparison to his earlier work, 2007’s Some Mad Hope—which housed the near-ubiquitous pop single, “Come on Get Higher”—sounded like the work of a new man. The hooks were bigger, the ballads hit harder, and Nathanson himself sang and played like the artist everyone who had ever seen him live knew he could be. Now, after another terrific pop record with a few modestly successful singles—2010’s excellent Modern Love—Nathanson is back. The new album—his seventh—is called Last of the Great Pretenders, and from the very first moments of the very first song, it’s clear that Nathanson hasn’t just gotten over his studio jitters, but left them in the dust altogether.

That opening track—the rousing and uneasy “Earthquake Weather”—is not only Nathanson’s most fully fleshed out song to date, but also the first indication that he could really transcend his pop singer/songwriter roots. Gone are the pristine and poppy hooks of Modern Love and the bubblegum lyrics of “Come on Get Higher.” Instead, we get ominous piano chords, fractious guitar scrapes, and a charging bass-line that recalls “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the iconic opener from U2’s legendary Joshua Tree album. Considering Nathanson’s love for that record, the sonic parallel might not be a mistake. Add loud, urban vocal harmonies and massive hip-hop ready beats, and “Earthquake Weather” is unlike anything Nathanson has ever put his fingerprints on: more My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than Room for Squares. “I’d kill anyone who treat you as bad as I do,” Nathanson mutters over the song’s opening chords, before letting forth an unhinged wail at the end of the song’s refrain. The songwriter has never sounded this aggressive, and while his new mask may not appeal to some of the listeners who jumped on board with Some Mad Hope, it fits him damn well nonetheless.

Second track and lead-off single, “Mission Bells,” is in the same vein, powered by a trippy and chopped up vocal sample, a relentless beat, a killer chorus, and some powerful interlocking bass work from co-producers Mike Viola and Jake Sinclair. Both players deserve a shout out for their work here, as the production and bass lines consistently stand out during The Last of the Great Pretenders’ 12 tracks. Viola is a singer/songwriter and sessions musician arguably most well-known for singing the lead vocal line on “That Thing You Do,” a song from the 1996 Tom Hanks film of the same name. Sinclair, meanwhile, is the bassist for Butch Walker’s backing band, the Black Widows, and has contributed his talents to a range of popular records over the past few years, from Taylor Swift’s best-selling Red to Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock and Roll. Both are very welcome additions to Nathanson’s crew, and help add a modern flavor to his sound that has been absent in the past.

One of my favorite things about Matt Nathanson has always been his passionate and infectious love of pop music. Whether he’s sharing an “album of the day” on Facebook, blogging about the spoils of his most recent trip to the record store, or interpolating classic songs into the center of his own compositions during live shows, Nathanson seems like one of those guys who makes music because he wants to give back to the industry that has given him so much. That feeling is all over this record, both lyrically and sonically, and it’s a treat to pick out the nuances of Matt’s influences. In one track, he’s pining after “the girl in the Kink’s shirt.” In another, he’s mourning the loss of “late night drives to Boston” and “Cure songs to get lost in.” And in a third, he boldly declares “I found religion in a record store.” Call that last one a homage to Springsteen’s “No Surrender” and the classic “we learned more from a three-minute record, baby, then we ever learned in school” line from that song’s iconic opening verse. With any other artist, the connection would be tenuous at best; with Nathanson, you know he’ll be holding court from behind the microphone, just hoping fans will draw the parallels themselves so he can break into a few impromptu covers.

The references aren’t limited to lyrics, either. Nathanson belts like Bono on album highlight “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco,” a gorgeous sun-soaked piece of stadium pop that rises from a tinkling piano intro into the finest chorus on the record. “Love, no one cares about the stories they’re not in,” Nathanson grandly proclaims. “We will fade out to whispers, it’s the last days of summer in San Francsco.” The penultimate acoustic-based gem, “Sunday New York Times,” is sophisticated and timeless, radiating elements of both classic and contemporary singer/songwriters, from James Taylor to upcoming tour mate, Joshua Radin. And the staccato piano lines at the top of “Kill the Lights” recall moments from fun.’s world-beating LP, Some Nights, a record whose blazing and bombastic pop production provides a template for where Nathanson goes with Last of the Great Pretenders.

However, simply calling this record a play for pop stardom in a post-fun. world would be reductive. Sure, songs like “Earthquake Weather” and “Mission Bells” focus heavily on beats and production, and “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco” is as grandiose and earnest as U2’s finest, but those larger-than-life trends don’t define the record. More accurately, Last of the Great Pretenders is the album where Nathanson throws everything at the canvas to see what sticks. For every bombastic pop song, there’s a stripped down acoustic confessional (“Sky High Honey”). For every Modern Love-esque summer jam (“Kink’s Shirt”), there’s a more old-fashioned piece of songwriting (“Sunday New York Times”). “Birthday Girl” sounds like Nathanson circa-2003; “Heart Starts” has a breezy Caribbean feel to it; “Annie’s Waiting for the Next One to Leave” is Cheap Trick-flavored power pop; and while most of the record may play out like a perfect summer driving mix, Last of the Great Pretenders ends amidst New Year’s Eve countdowns and snatches of “Auld Lang Syne” on the sweeping “Farewell, December."

Somehow, it all combines into what is arguably the most cohesive record of Nathanson’s career, and the element that ties it all together is the spirit of San Francisco. Nathanson wrote and recorded all of these songs in the city of the Golden Gate, and the result is a patchwork of snapshots and stories that capture what it’s like to spend a season in the city Nathanson came to love. Albums that capture this much of a place have always caught my attention, from Andrew McMahon’s whirlwind-summer-in-Los-Angeles masterwork, Everything in Transit,to the New York City love letter that is Billy Joel’s Turnstiles. With Last of the Great Pretenders, Nathanson captures the organic energy of a city full of exuberant personalities, legendary landmarks, and gorgeous vistas, and the result is one of the most bulletproof summer discs to come along this year.

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