CD Review of The Imagination Stage by Eric Matthews
Recommended if you like
Ed Harcourt, Elliot Smith, Sufjan Stevens
Label
Empyrean Records
Eric Matthews:
The Imagination Stage

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

E
ric Matthews’ penchant for symphonic overreach has been a hallmark of his career since early on, as a member of the seminal orchestral pop band the Cardinals – which he co-piloted with like-minded auteur Richard Davies – and then onward through a 10-year solo progression that’s brought him comparison to early heroes like Brian Wilson, the Bee Gees, and Burt Bacharach. Consequently, in spite of whatever abrupt change in approach might be implied by its title, The Imagination Stage doesn’t add significantly to his profusely textured oeuvre, at least in terms of content. Regardless, it does reaffirm the fact that Matthews is one of the most skilled pop practitioners working today, especially when it comes to creating soundscapes infused with richness and radiance.

It’s those dense, thickly textured arrangements that draw the ear initially – and, in fact, well after that. While Matthews is a deft composer, these 13 songs serve more as setups for the vibrant instrumentation that surrounds them, leaving Matthews’ hushed vocals to affect the emotion. As it is, there’s very little deviation in tone or temperament; these are sad songs of dreamy designs, a low-cast mélange bathed in melancholia and despair. It’s an effective tact in terms of conveying a consistently somber scenario, but the elaborate application does little to differentiate one track from another. Consider it mood music for pessimistic people.

That said, a closer a listen finds certain incongruities. While Matthews’ sorrowful singing oozes pathos and regret, the gentle glide and easy caress that buttress the melodies belie a troubled subterfuge. The lush opening track, “Well Known Liar,” finds the narrator confessing the fact that he’s a master of deception, one apt to “screw my friends.” “Don’t Take Light” finds him addressing the lingering doubts that leave him asking, “What is this blackness all around… Why do these fears run in my life?” The final song of the set, “Does He Keep You Warm,” bows to his love of orchestral indulgence, but when his voice eventually intercedes, it finds Matthews harboring heartbreak. “The sadness is growing,” he concedes. “I knew you were leaving, but now you’re gone.”

Even at their most pensive, the uncertainty in these songs still resonate: “Genius,” “We Were Human” and “Fools” rumble and ruminate, as if pondering some eternal cause for contemplation. Thick layers of keyboards, ornate orchestration and muted trumpets suggest a grand statement of sorts that buoys the music to majestic heights. Regardless of its introspective musings, The Imagination Stage is ultimately an impressive effort and another ideal platform for Matthews’ instinctive ingenuity.

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