Dust Bin Discoveries: Matt Elliott’s ‘Songs’ Trilogy

 

Songs Trilogy

From left to right: Drinking Songs, Failing Songs, and Howling Songs

The title “Dust Bin Discoveries” is an apt title for the work of British folk guitarist and songwriter Matt Elliott for more reasons than his frequent flying under the radar. Whether in a solo capacity or as a member of The Third Eye Foundation, Elliott writes music that one would expect to find in a hole-in-the-wall record shop in some dimly lit backstreet of a city, where one has to flip through moth-ball scented boxes full of crinkled 12” records to unearth that hidden, slightly warped gem underneath it all.

Time is also an important element here, as his music sounds like the type of thing that one would find 30 years after its release; upon finding it, I imagine, one would wipe of a layer of dust from the LP sleeve, revealing the morose and mysterious artwork underneath. Titles like “What the Fuck am I Doing on this Battlefield?” and “I Name this Ship Tragedy, Bless All Her and All Who Sail with Her” would intrigue such that one couldn’t possibly pass up the chance of buying it. Upon bringing it home, whiskey is poured into a snifter, lights are dimmed, and as Elliot’s minor-key lamentations begin to fill the space, all one can do is revel in his masterfully honed melancholy.

When this ritual of gloom is finished, the music is tucked gingerly away into some overlooked drawer — sunlight is far from this its natural environs. The work of Matt Elliott is best kept in dark corners, hidden nooks, and stacks of old classical and folk records. To borrow the words of the man himself, “Some things are so dark that woe betide the light that shines on them.”

I wish my first encounter with this music was as a romantic and idealized as that picture. Truth be told, Matt Elliott entered my consciousness not in some shadow-shaded record shop in Paris — as much as I’d like to imagine that’s how it went down. Instead, I learned about him through a venue quite far from dark or sketchy. One day, while making a run-through of my daily music reading, an intriguing little jpeg caught my eye on the front page of Pitchfork: It was the sleeve art to Elliott’s fifth studio LP, The Broken Man. Nick Neyland’s review contained more than a few key words that I tend to zero in on when perusing through reviews, with references to fingerpicked guitar (Al Di Meola had quite an impression on me as a youth), Swans, and a doomy use of a church bell. After quick listens to the lead cuts off the LP, including those recorded for Milano Acoustics, I knew I’d be hooked.

The allure of Elliott’s dark brand of songwriting is similar to the piano-driven macabre of The Black Heart Procession, who I had become enamored with not but two years earlier. When the rest of The Broken Man had played out its songs of loneliness in my ears, it was plain to me that Elliott was not just something I had missed. He was the kind of musician that upon discovering, I immediately want to get the word out to everyone I know. The stereotype of the hipster bent on turning all of his friends onto his “underground” and “little-known” music is indeed an annoying one; but, at the same time, the effects of finding that one special artist or band are hard to predict.

Matt Elliott

Even though I will never have had the experience of happening upon Elliott’s music in a trendy, on-the-outskirts record shop, every time I return to his albums, I nonetheless get the sense of intrigue, as if I’ve been transported into a noir-ish landscape of grey skies and flickering lights in rainy alleyways. His Songs trilogy, comprised of Drinking Songs (2005), Failing Songs (2006), and Howling Songs (2008), is a mélange of Eastern European melody, Parisian waltz, English folk, and a heaping spoonful of all things funereal. The portrait of the artist this trilogy invokes is captured best by the sleeve art to Drinking Songs: a lone man, eyes shut deep in thought, with a half-spent cigarette in one hand and a glass of liquor in the other. Simply put, this is music at its most solitary. Even those moments that one might class as optimistic or hopeful, such as the delicate “Song for a Failed Relationship” from Howling Songs, are maintained by a steady undercurrent of gloomy solipsism. Things left after wreckage are a common fixation of Elliott’s lyrical exploration; on Failing Songs’ seductive title cut, he sings, “The future that we had is now the past/And it’s cobwebs that we cling to/Our aspirations turned to ashes in our hands.” The Broken Man, released four years after the Songs trifecta, summarizes the emotional arc the trilogy follows on “Dust Flesh and Bones”: “This is how it feels to be alone.”

Elliott is a rare person in modern music. Though his song titles often bring to mind the scream-punctuated heart-songs of post-hardcore (current winner of that trophy being The Broken Man’s centerpiece “If Anyone Tells Me, ‘It’s Better to Have Loved and Lost then to Have Never Loved at All,’ I Will Stab Them in the Face”), his songwriting has a deep connection with modes and styles of folk that predate his existence. Failing Songs is a wondrous thing to behold in this respect; his command over Eastern European folk scales and chord patterns is an uncommon thing to hear in a Western musician these days.

Then again, Elliott’s label, the French indie Ici D’Ailleurs (also home to Yann Tiersen), has a reputation for finding the atypically brilliant — Elliot is just one of many examples. From battlefield lamentations (“A Waste of Blood”) to Spanish-inspired dalliances (“A Broken Flamenco”) to aching vocal harmonies (“Lone Gunmen Required”), these Songs are unified in mood and execution but varied in genre and style. Elliott’s appeal is definitely for those with more sophisticated tastes — there’s very little about this music that allows for a casual listen — but his sonic proclivities, which some might perceive as antiquated, still properly belong in this time and place.

Aside from the dour mood that pervades the trilogy, the other constant that makes Elliott stand out is his skill in playing the acoustic guitar. Fingerpicking is a tricky and beautiful talent, but it’s also one that’s easy to overdo; many an aspiring flamenco player will let his fingers flurry over the nylon strings without any consideration for the actual resultant sounds. Elliott has a nimble hand, and best of all he never tries to come off as more dexterous than he actually is. “Gone,” the penultimate track off of Failing Songs, is a gorgeous example to this point; Elliott delicately lets the notes have the space to breathe, each chord leading gracefully into the next, forming a progression that lingers in the mind long after it hits its last note. The aforementioned performance of “Oh How We Fell” reveals a surprising quality of both his songwriting and his style of playing: quite often he’s picking the basic root chords of the key signatures he’s playing in — A minor and E minor being two common ones — yet somehow he makes it sound far more sophisticated than the chord patterns would suggest. To use so few musical ingredients so deftly is a skill uncommon, which only adds to the intrigue of Elliott’s records. The ways in which he interweaves complex sounds with relatively simple arrangements becomes increasingly daunting as one peels back the layers of his music to reveal their composite parts.

That’s why, in the end, I continually return to that “Matt Elliott” spot on my iPod. (One day, hopefully, I will actually be able to procure a vinyl copy of the trilogy with the hopes of it accruing dust in a hidden drawer somewhere — for now, I’ll just have to direct my bitterness at the prohibitively high shipping costs of buying vinyl from France.) Aside from being a person who openly loves the kinds of music many label “depressing” — my ears perk whenever I hear the words “doom” and “metal” together — I’m deeply drawn to music that knows how to use intrigue and mystery to its benefit. Each time I listen to this trilogy of Songs, I rarely feel like I’m having the same experience. At two hours and 43 minutes, Elliott offers no shortage of melody and lyric for the listener to invest herself in — and maybe, just maybe, get lost a little more each time. With every listen, I find myself still needing to blow the dust off of these records; contemporary though they are, there are also ghosts of old hidden within these grooves — or MP3 files, in my case — waiting to find a new way to haunt me.

Matt Elliott’s newest studio LP, Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart, will be out in October through Ici D’Ailleurs.

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