Review Summary: Scott Matthews' sophomore album finds him slumping ever so slightly, but it still offers a handful of great songs.
Scott Matthews’ debut album, 2006’s Passing Stranger
, was a remarkably big record for a virtually unknown solo artist. Its seventeen tracks covered a variety of genres, including folk, blues, and pop-rock, and Matthews seemed capable of playing all of them effortlessly well. The album did not chart well, but it was well-received by critics and its lead single, the Jeff Buckley-esque “Elusive,” got a fair amount of radio play in Matthews’ native England and went on to win the 2007 Ivor Novello award for “Best Song Musically and Lyrically.” With a growing fan base and sudden expectations to be the next great singer/songwriter, Matthews returned to the studio and has now delivered his follow-up album, Elsewhere
If its title doesn’t make it obvious, the first drum beats of the opening track “Underlying Lies” immediately introduce a tone darker than anything found on Passing Stranger
. Matthews is backed by a full band and a string section for this moody piece, and while the music swells and the strings take over for the instrumental conclusion, the song never gets anywhere near being pretty. The lyrics follow suit, as Matthews croons “spare me your bull***” to open the chorus, which is a line that should surprise any fans of his debut. The song works fairly well, but it turns out to be a red herring as only two of the remaining ten tracks could reasonably be called rock songs. The first of these is the lead single “Fractured,” which features grungy, chugging guitars in its chorus and gives Scott a chance to flex his vocals cords a bit more than usual. It’s a good song that stands out as the hardest-rocking song he’s written, but it works better on its own than as a part of the album, where it feels out of place around the mostly-intimate music. The other is “Into the Firing Line,” which recalls “The Fool’s Fooling Himself” in its up-tempo, drum driven nature, but it is lighter and ultimately not as good as that excellent track from Matthews’ debut.
The first half of the album also features a trio of wonderful, gentle folk songs. “Jagged Melody” provides a nice change of pace from the preceding “Underlying Lies,” in both its simpler arrangement and more hopeful lyrics. “Speeding Slowly” is one of the catchier songs on the album, and while it utilizes the full band and strings again, this time the arrangement is much more melodic and lush. Finally, there is the song that got the most press prior to the album’s release, “12 Harps,” a duet with the legendary Robert Plant, who, like Matthews, is a native of Wolverhampton. The song is just the voices, acoustic guitar, and some ambience, and it works wonderfully as Plant’s aged, frailer voice nicely compliments Matthews’ younger and more robust one. It is the highlight of the album and one of the best songs Matthews has written, and would even have been a highlight on a few Led Zeppelin albums, where it would not have sounded too out of place.
The problem with this album comes in the second half. After the aforementioned and average “Into the Firing Line,” the remaining four tracks suffer from a lack of variety and hooks of any kind. Scott Matthews has proven he can make very good folk songs with just his voice and guitar, but if one’s not paying attention, the last 21 minutes of this album can pass by without much notice. “Up on the Hill” is probably the best of these, but five minutes after it’s over it’s hard to recall anything about it. In fact, while Elsewhere
is still a pretty good album, there is a noticeable lack of variety on it as a whole, and it takes a few listens before the better songs set themselves apart from the rest. Considering how well he pulled off multiple genres on his debut, it’s a bit disappointing that he decided to make this album reside mostly within one genre, with basically no bluesy or poppy numbers to be found. It’s tough to say if he’s playing it safe or trying to make a more serious artistic statement, probably the latter, but hopefully on his future albums he will bring back some of the fun and humor of Passing Stranger
and draw from more of his wide array of influences.