Saturday, March 26, 2016

Matt Nathanson - Show Me Your Fangs

The last time we heard from Matt Nathanson, the Massachusetts-born singer/songwriter seemed to be having a bit of an identity crisis. Broken to a nationwide audience by the 2008 radio hit "Come on Get Higher," Nathanson could easily have sold out and turned himself into a global celebrity by writing similarly sensitive college-dorm-ready love ballads. But Nathanson, ever the classic rock geek and always the most sarcastic guy in the room, is the type of artist who could never fully neversell out. He wrote what sounded like a summer pop album with 2010's Modern Love, but the lyrics were witty, whip-smart, and frequently cynical. His next album, 2013's Last of the Great Pretenders, was even weirder, a collision of beat-heavy, hip-hop inspired pop songs, U2-esque arena rock, and classic singer/songwriter fare. I loved the album, but in retrospect, I view it as Nathanson's least focused. The songs were all good, but they didn't really hold together as a cohesive album.

Oddly, Show Me Your Fangs, the follow-up to Pretenders, is every bit as scattershot. These songs cut a bizarre figure, split just about half-and-half between ridiculously catchy pop songs and crushing singer/songwriter ballads. It's as if Nathanson just threw his last three albums (Pretenders, Modern Love, and his still-career-defining 2007 disc, Some Mad Hope) in a blender to see what would happen.

On one hand, this album should have fans and casual listeners alike wondering why Nathanson never had more hits. The lead single, "Headphones," has an indelible chorus that sticks in your head after a single listen, and "Gold in the Summertime" is a smooth soulful jam about hanging out on a "rooftop in Soho" and listening to "Prince on the radio." The song, which sounds equally inspired by classic Motown pop and horn-led rock bands like Chicago, should have been a contender for the superfluous mainstream "song of the summer" title this year. It didn't even crack the pop charts. In case anyone was wondering, this is why I have yet to turn on the radio in the car I bought back in April.

Opening track "Giants" is the kind of big, beating heart pop song that Last of the Great Pretenders didn't have enough of. Nathanson wrote the best pop album of the year back in 2011, with about nine of the 11 songs on Modern Love featuring the biggest sing-along hooks on the block. There was a reason I kept that album in constant rotation in my car that summer. "Giants" is cut from the same cloth, with a shimmering and optimistic chorus ("The world don't speak for us/They lack the confidence/Yeah, we're only hearts and bones and blood/But we are giants") that sounds readymade for a summer road trip mix.

Between "Headphones," "Gold in the Summertime," and "Giants," one begins to wonder why the hell Nathanson sat on this album until fall, instead of dropping it in the middle of the summer. As you get deeper into the record, though, it becomes clear that Show Me Your Fangs is more complex and layered than Modern Love was. It might have some of the catchiest singles of the year, but a summer pop album this is not. At times, the songs here get darker and heavier than anything Nathanson has written since Some Mad Hope—an album he wrote after he and his wife came perilously close to a divorce. Show Me Your Fangs frequently sounds like is also about a relationship on the rocks.

"Bill Murray," for instance, seems like it should be quirky pop ditty based on the title, but is actually a contemplative piano ballad. In the song, Matt describes a dream where he was pals with Bill Murray and the two "Drove the world from Boston to Japan/Blasting old Van Halen." In the dream, Murray acts like a spiritual guide, helping the narrator realize the importance of the person he loves most. "One night over drinks Bill started crying," Matt sings in the surreal first verse. "He said to me 'Kid, of all the stupid things I ever did/You know, I let go when I should have pulled her in.'" It sounds hokey on paper, but the song is actually brilliantly effective, with a spartan piano arrangement and ample conviction in Nathanson's voice selling the number as a unorthodox but sincere love song. "I won't only love you when you're winning/Other fools pretend to understand/Come on take my hand, and we'll go down swinging/Let me be your man," goes the chorus, a gorgeous payoff for the funny and touching verses.

Things get even heavier in the record's second half. "Disappear," for example, might be the darkest song in Nathanson's catalog. Somewhere in the midst of a lonely, drunken night spent in a hotel room, Nathanson starts having a go at himself. "For my greatest trick, the one everyone cheers/You're deep in love, and I'm not even here," he sings in the second verse, before delivering the stark admission of the chorus: "I can make good turn amazing/Then disappear." "Washington State Fight Song" is equally desolate and continues the album's themes of broken relationships, self-loathing, and regret. When Nathanson sings "I want to start over, pack up, disappear/And come back treating you better/But there's a girl up in Spokane, and I'm like a moth to a flame," it's arguably the bluntest he's ever been in his songwriting. "Playlists & Apologies," meanwhile, might sound upbeat, with a hip-hop ready groove and beat, but there's nothing happy about the lyrical work. "We had an epic movie trailer love," Nathanson quips on the verse, but it wasn't meant to be. "Now all that's left of you and me, playlists and apologies."

For someone who has often masked the melancholy in his music with big hooks, clever lyrics, classic rock references, and plenty of self-deprecating humor, Show Me Your Fangs is a shockingly revealing and astoundingly sad record. The three songs described in the paragraph above—"Disappear," "Washington State Fight Song," and "Playlists & Apologies"—are downright harrowing, so dark and devoid of hope that it's almost remarkable they came from the same guy who wrote "Come on Get Higher" or anything on Modern Love. If you've ever seen a Nathanson live show and witnessed how he pairs his musical performances with almost stand-up-level comedy bits, you might forget that he can even hurt like this. But Nathanson vowed a few years ago to be more direct in his songwriting, and to never pull his punches, and the heavier moments of Show Me Your Fangs are the clearest evidence yet of that new songwriting mentality.

The catalyst for Nathanson's change in direction was "Wedding Dress," the song on Some Mad Hope that most directly addressed his "almost divorce." When fans started telling Nathanson that they were playing the song at their weddings, he decided that the gross misinterpretations were his fault, and that he needed to be blunter and more direct with his writing. In a 2013 interview with Huffington Post, he explained the epiphany, saying, "The things that saved my life as a kid and the records that save my life now are records that you hear and you're like, 'I can't believe that person just said that.' I love music so much that I felt like music deserves more than my trying to save face and be clever. If I get to do this for a living, I feel like I have to be straight, as straight as I can be, you know?"

The best songs on Show Me Your Fangs, unsurprisingly, are the ones where Nathanson dares to be completely honest and candid. Honest about his failures and mistakes, honest about the lonesomeness of being a touring musician, and honest about how it's important to always love your better half—even when things aren't going well. Of course, the entire record isn't breakups and bad news. The simple presence of songs like "Headphones," "Gold in the Summertime," "Giants," and "Shouting" keeps Show Me Your Fangs light enough to be blasted in the car. Unlike with Last of the Great Pretenders, though, the different styles and songwriting approaches don't feel like an identity crisis this time around. Rather, it feels like Nathanson made a deliberate choice to give the album both a light side and a dark side—just like Springsteen once paired his most hopeless ballads with his most raucous bar band rockers on The River. As with The River, the song pairings on Show Me Your Fangs don't always make sense. It's particularly odd to have "Headphones"—a single that's been out for more than a year now—positioned as a victory-lap closing track. But also like with The River, there's something beguiling and ultimately uplifting about hearing Nathanson's most celebratory highs and most crushing lows side by side.

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