William Matheny has written the best album I’ve heard this year. You need to pay attention to this guy. He’s right in your backyard, and he’s one of the best songwriters in the country.
Matheny has caught lightning in a bottle with this record. Strange Constellations has a verve and urgency that you usually find in songs that have been trying to get out of someone’s head for a decade, yet it somehow remains poignant and reflective. This is the work of someone who has a poetic heart. The lyrics and content remember events and people wistfully, but with clarity. Most of Strange Constellations seems to take place in the rear view with Matheny’s words measuring the distance between then and now.
Like many great singer-songwriters who perform in bands, he wraps the songs up in music that is so winsome and effective that you don’t always notice the depth of what he’s getting at until you’ve spent some time with the songs. The first one on the album, Teenage Bones, is a perfect example of this. I love the lyric, “I used to walk to your house in the summertime, let the car wash spray get me wet. Leave my shoes by your door and sit all day on your floor and say things I’d one day regret.” If Matheny performed this solo, audiences might more quickly notice the melancholic conflict articulated in the song. Instead, what you probably notice initially is how much this sounds like a Tom Petty song.
There are a lot of other echoes you catch on this album. Living Half to Death sounds like a song that a twenty-first century Buddy Holly might have written about living in an Appalachian college party town. Matheny delivers the song with hardly more than a hint of regret, even if he seems to accept that the image depicted is not an entirely positive one. It’s refreshing to see a man at peace with his sins, instead of tossing around empty mea culpas.
William Matheny has been compared to Jonathan Richman. I find this an inspired parallel. 29 Candles is the country-fried rave-up that Richman’s Modern Lovers might have recorded, if he had been born in West Virginia. This is the sort of song that you sing along to before you’ve finished hearing it entirely.
Funny Papers has a George Jones or Conway Twitty feel. The lyrics are clever in a way that used to be de rigueur for country artists. At some point along the way, however, country music became an ugly, inbred parody of itself. Americana artists have tried to reclaim the glory of country music by going back to the headwaters. Matheny does that here so effectively that you have to check the liner notes to make sure this isn’t a cover of one of the great old songs that you forgot about. By writing music like this, Matheny has made something new and vibrant. Indeed, the aural landscape these songs play out on is a well-worn one. However, Matheny and his band are found more than capable of breathing new life into it.
An interesting aspect of established genres of music is that the right person is always able to find the vitality and soul that lives in the core of the sound and use it to deliver a unique message. For Americana music, Matheny is that person. Strange Constellations is the album we’ve been waiting for. Buy the record. Go see the band.
- Joshua Beane