Sophisticated, Emotional, Precise – Matthew Edwards and the Unfortunates’ “The Fates”

Matthew Edwards and the Unfortunates
The Fates
Metal Postcard

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Consider some lyrics:

I think things were better before the accident

         I think things were clearer when they made less sense

Or:

I’m dizzy from laughing/Up on this cross

                     I ask my companions/’Boys are we lost?’

Or:

            You’re the most beautiful girl in the world/And I’m lying

                    I’ve spotted that knife in your hand/And I’m trying

                           To edge myself out the back door and into the night

Now wrap those up in lush, spry, sweepingly concise arrangements that are also unmistakably, unerringly, British in tongue and tone. Welcome to The Fates, the 2012-released album by Matthew Edwards and The Unfortunates that is being lovingly reissued in digital and CD formats in January 2015 by Metal Postcard after the original limited edition, vinyl-only run on Last Tape Recordings.

In some ways a bracing listen – whatever Edwards may pull, punches aren’t one of them – The Fates is also a generous one, providing an abundance of finely lathed songcraft that tots out far beyond the cost of an LP, including shipping. Chief among its attributes, perhaps, is the broad swath of flavors presented on the (ahem..sorry) platter. This is music that, in posture and confidence, could find itself settling comfortably into a wide variety of settings, from a jazz afternoon in the Village circa Barefoot In the Park to a modern rock ‘n’ roll bar in San Francisco (where Edwards now makes his home) to, most archly, some tantalizing version of the Weimar Republic set in London and not Berlin. All the while droll, all the while literate, a coupling of adjectives that could not more point to the aforementioned suffusion of Britishness at work here were it leashed to Winston Churchill’s bulldog. Just to guard, one guesses, against any oversight on this matter on the part of the listener, Edwards himself just goes ahead and states as much on ‘The Way To The Stars,” proclaiming, with a mix of abashedness and bald-faced defiance, I’m English, so English, ridiculously, just prior to guest guitarist (on three tracks) Fred Frith arriving to tear the song apart from the inside out with a marvelous, meticulous efficiency. So English indeed.

That song, ‘The Way To The Stars,” merits further inspection, not just for Frith’s insane fretwork – the long staccato-fueled outro is a thing of flourishing, devilish beauty, a funkified prog scorcher – but also for the wry pointedness with which it details Edwards’s skewed path to his current status as the prodigal, lost, and somewhat willful ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ returned to the spotlight, unbowed, unbroken, no less willful. That ‘The Way” of the title references, in part, a typical Hollywood tourist map reflects the dry, acid-tongued reality he’s trading in here. As highly regarded as he is – that ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ tag has been hung on him in one form or another since his days as front man of The Music Lovers and The Fates will not change that – as accomplished as this record is, who but a fool would, these days, handicap its chances of bothering even the farthest reaches of major media radar. This is no slight. Nearly nothing on any of our year-end lists comes within a rifle shot of any of the much-diminished ‘charts’ out there. They, and the lumbering corporate monoliths they serve, have become a decidedly old model, which in itself is decidedly old news, of course. And in a perverse way, perhaps, we should be thankful for all that, as now, rather than chasing some pipedreamy vision of hits and riches and groupies draping over every backstage armchair (or whatever, choose your preferred cliché), the only remaining drive for the vast percentage of artists is the compulsive need to make music and make it very well. If there’s little to (materially) gain there’s nothing left to lose and the result, as often as not, is gems of this magnitude, albums curated by the artist him- or herself with a level of care that more intently, more honestly, reflects the person making it. The Fates may be one of the best albums of 2012 – and it is – but it’s the recognition and stoic acceptance of this state of affairs that in no small way animates this record. So, expression for expression’s sake then, that’s what’s left, and again only a fool would suggest that, in the case of The Fates, anyway, this is anything but a happy happenstance for those of us lucky enough to hear it.

Of The Fates, Matthews states that it’s a “post-divorce, post-old group, post-car crash and post-dreams” album. He also mentions, rather unnecessarily one would think, that it’s “black-humored” and that every song is literal, all of which amounts to a curious mix of self-mythologizing and clinical self-appraisal but misses the most grounding, fundamental truth of the guy: Edwards, despite that black humor, despite the wisps of cynicism, is a romantic, is ever the enchanted fatalist. Even on ‘Accident,’ a ruminative, blunt essay on the rending effect that car crash had on a relationship’s fabric and that opens the album on a note of hanging forlornness – minor chords on a tremeloed organ can do that – even that can’t help but percolate with a dash of panache. Of course, that Kinksian middle bit doesn’t hurt, the lyrics from whence the album title (Before The Fates had done with me/I just made up the scenery) getting sung over Sasha Bell’s gentle, sprightly organ as it bumps along all Supertramp-like until we’re swooned by an aching cabaret’ed accordion solo from former Music Lover Isaac Bonnell, which, along with a little stunner of a descending bass run (Jefferson Marshall), make us all wistful for a past we don’t even have, one of those kinds of moments. In this way, “Accident” presents as a calling card, not just for the way it takes a deftly sobering, no-bullshit lyric and pours it down your throat like a soothing cuppa spiked with aged bourbon (bit of an Edwards forte, that, to be honest) , but also for bringing us ‘one of those kinds of moments.’

The swirling-out-of-the-fog build-in of “Ghost” had me standing at the edge of the carousel in Golden Gate Park, it’s winter like a perpetual dusk and the ride is closed and the thoughts I’m having of errant long-ago love affairs are all being translated into the lachrymal but proud scrapes of a cello (and how Adaiha McAdams-Somer knows my past life is too eerie to contemplate) while the pounding insistent bass drum is the sound of my heart trapped in my head, as always, what else is new. Then Edwards sings I-I-I-I kissed a ghost and what the hell, it’s as unsettling as it is riveting and how much more can you ask from a song, anyway? The sound is rich, nimbly baroque – not least for the brassy keyboard break piped in midway from just this side of Pepperland – with a rather sinister churchy feel to it and, dare I say it, gothic of undertone.

matthew edwards

And so the record carries on, an internal travelogue of fleeting emotional landscapes, the singer inviting us to shapeshift along with him through a succession of evocative tableaux. ‘The Imposter,” with its hurdy-gurdy carpet, its deep airy bass tones and the chopping chime of guitar, skirts menace, puts you on edge, a state doubly enhanced by a middle eight of dueling, nervous violin stabs that never seem to quite reach the note they’re jabbing at. And yet there’s that bright little ping of xylophone popping up now and again, not to mention the deathless melody of the thing, as head-noddingly singable as an early Costello A-side. This is the point where, yes, the phrase “delicious tension” comes in, but it’s possibly more salient to say it’s the sound of Matthew Edwards saving himself from Matthew Edwards. Like any romantic, Edwards writes dark, but his ear for melody, his penchant for knowing just when to grab for pop’s brass ring, these are the ineffable qualities that have garnered him the many years of praise and which are broadly evident on The Fates, and which allow the songs to sail merrily atop, rather than sinking in, the mire. When he couches the bleak dry wit of “Dizzy” (see the “cross/lost” couplet up top) in the warm organ and strummy acoustic shades of Tapestry-era Carole King, this statement of irreverent, middle-fingered defiance becomes a rather pastoral, cello-mellow romp, complete with some cheery, damn near joyous b-duh-dup harmonizing with Ms Bell. I swear you can see the grass meadows stretching out in the sunshine beneath that cross.

That cello, along with its co-conspiring accordion, are the keyest of key elements here as they produce, both together and in separate despatches, a drifting yearn that acts as a sonic connective tissue across many of The Fates most effective tracks. It is them – and, OK, those violins as well, and that pedal steel later on – that turn the audio into visual like magic mise-en-scene machines. So on ‘English Blues,’ a stately lament pulling on the threads of aging and dislocation, we’re there just over the man’s shoulder staring into a bar mirror in the Lower Haight (it’ll do for a guess) as he lingeringly conjures and reflects and gets unsparingly philosophical as only the English can. It’s via the instrumentation that the vistas of memory open up behind the reversed image in that mirror, creating a soundscape that suggests rolling green moors, haunted music halls and the dusty floors of California taverns, all thrown together in some tangled collage of the soul. Though a quiet one, it’s quite a tour de force, dense with elements deftly perched – I count a flute, electric piano and the shake of a maraca among the likely suspects – held together in a taut, hovering structure that is almost melismatic in effect and leaves you rather stopped in your tracks.

This is not, in truth, an uncommon response. Engaging with The Fates is an often hypnotic experience, these songs are rapturously embossed and for this one needs offer a deep-wasted bow and generous tip of the hounds-tooth hat to producer Eric Drew Feldman (Pixies, PJ Harvey, former Magic Band member), whose helming influence is never far from the surface, or is rather just far enough below the surface to be as masterfully infusive as it is unobtrusive. Seeing as it’s him what brought the pump organ and mellotron to the proceedings it’s no surprise the album often operates inside a moderned-up, vintage Victrola aesthetic, crackle-free but just as warm, just as woozily comforting. No matter what’s being said, how fetchingly dark the message or mood may be, the broad sonic feel of the thing, like an heirloom Shetland wool, makes these songs seem well taken care of.

Even the crashing, emphatic nihilism of “I Don’t Care” can’t escape this level of attention. Despite the punky abnegation of the words – all nine of them, the album’s weakest lyrical outing, though their sparseness and pith are most certainly the point – there’s a delicate flangey guitar sound and even the  hover of a flute hanging in the air between the pounding sturm und drang bits (cue Mr Frith again), proving there’s room for beauty even as the china is being smashed.

All of which is splendid and adds body and texture to the phrase ‘understated gem’ that most often attaches to records of this quality and certainly would not go misplaced in this instance. But for all the gorgeous cladding it’s still Matthew Edwards cloaked inside, the singer, the songwriter, the voice and the words. This is a beautiful record, yes it is, but at its core is an artist endowed with certain chops, chops informed – beyond the more obvious musical – by influences literary, cinematic, historical. However, with the exception of “Sandrine Bonnaire” (a confession of a twisted crush disguised as a song that conflates the celebrated actress with her role in Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, soundtracked by the mannered pluck of a violin and a well-manicured cello), those influences aren’t explicitly tendered but nonetheless permeate, the songs are rich about the edges, there’s a refinement lurking. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that this is an adult album, rather swooning in its own intelligence and a distilled sense of restraint (the Frith outburst and “I Don’t Care”‘s serrations aside). Edwards is both authorial and authoritative and the confidence he has in his craft bursts from nearly every groove and pore of The Fates. It is neither flippant hyperbole nor pejorative to call this record sophisticated, made by a sophisticate.

What surprises, then, given those attributes, is the specter of emotion often found sneaking furtively about just behind the curtain and indeed, by album’s end, stepping somewhat nakedly into the spotlight. You hear it straightaway in lead-off track ‘Accident,’ a quaver of melancholy inflecting verses already built on a bed of resignation and acceptance, and you hear it of course on “The English Blues,” its baroque underpinnings not so lush as to mask the ache of yearning for a place he can’t possibly return to yet cannot leave, not in the truest sense. But it’s the last two tracks in which the guards, tattered and precarious though they may have been, are finally and fully dropped.

The penultimate ‘No More Songs,’ dolorous, self-effacing – you are still beautiful/and I am still wrong – with its lonesome cry of pedal steel reinforcing what’s essentially the autopsy of a relationship (the title equating to the loss of romance in same), would seem the natural finale. Until, that is, ‘Before The Good Times’ spools out in all its saddened, straight-talked splendor.

If there’s a case to be made that art’s most effecting moments of heartbreak come wrapped in unlikely, unsuspecting packaging, “Before The Good Times” could serve as exhibit A. Stumbling in – rather precisely – with the pluck of a banjo, the thump of a bass drum, the high clear ring of a steel guitar, you could be forgiven for assuming the arrival of some salvation band threading through the saloon doors. Then Edwards opens his mouth. Once we were alone and had a place of our own before the good times tore us apart and no crest has more decidedly fallen in the space of a single line. Whereas elsewhere on this album the singer has hewed more closely to a somewhat ironic timbre – not clipped, not clinical, but still observing at least a shred of British distance, however illusive – here the safety is off and any last hopes of a maintained rigor evaporate as an obvious fragility inhabits Edwards’s singing throughout, and twice the voice cracks on the word ‘apart,’ most tellingly on his final attempt at it where he barely gets even the shell of the word out of his mouth. On an album rich with the intricacies of human experience – running the maze of all those post-thisses and post-thats quoted up above – it is a quietly devastating and appropriate note on which to go out.

To those familiar with Matthew Edwards work fronting The Music Lovers the news of an album arriving as beautifully wrought as The Fates will come as no surprise (though I’d still wager it’s far better than you might have expected). But if, like me, you were sadly uninitiated, this record, sliding in as it did under nearly every radar, will not just catch you unawares but come as a bit of a revelation. It’s shockingly good. I was lucky to hear The Fates early enough for it to factor in to my 2012 end-of-year Top 10 calculations, where it was, without question, a shoe-in. Should that not have been the case for you, brace yourself and be prepared to go back and revise. You have our permission, and besides, The Fates rather demands it.