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Matt Pond - The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand (BMG)

Matt Pond - The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand
15 February 2013

There’s not a lot of difference, ultimately, between career musicians and the ones who release new material whenever it suits them, except that the career musician uses his lesser songs as a kind of proof, to underscore or challenge the strength of his best songs, while the latter kind uses long silences for the same purpose. Matt Pond is the essential career musician of our age, in that he’s exactly famous enough and exactly productive enough to make a living of it (as far as I can tell). But what sets him apart is that there’s nothing in his catalog resembling a major breakthrough or failure, so that what he’s got is a confounding steadiness. Silence won’t do for him: Every song is a consolidation and proof of the previous one.

After a relatively long absence (three years), The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand is either his ninth or his first album, depending on how seriously you take the sudden omission of “PA” from his recording name. I don’t, since that affix always implied a continual rotation of extra players. You might wonder what’s changed this time, and then, knowing Matt Pond, you’ll wonder why you wondered that. There’s only one major upgrade on his first “solo” album and it’s the one that would imply the inclusion, rather than non-inclusion, of a full band: This is his most propulsive, upbeat album, front-to-back, since 2005’s Several Arrows Later, going a little quiet in its final songs but never quite tapering off into that familiar lethargy. And that stable level of energy makes it harder than ever to separate the standouts from the songs that serve as their underscore, but after starting off in very solid form with two songs defined by their anthemic choruses, shouted with exactly as much force as they deserve (“Love to Get Used” is particularly infectious), the album arrives at its real stunner, the somewhat more restrained “Starlet.”

Pond’s best songs, if we can choose them, are paradoxes, effortless and spare and yet clearly arrived at by a meticulous process of deductive reasoning: “Every beautiful song contains this,” he might say, “so I’ll make one containing only this.” “Brooklyn Stars,” “The Dark Leaves Theme,” and now “Starlet” have been among the results. There’s much to admire in the new song’s pretty envelope – I love the way the chiming piano acts as both an echo of the guitar chords and punctuation of the rhythm – but it’s interesting to listen to the acoustic version offered on The Natural Lines (a complementary EP made available for free prior to the album’s release) and find how little of that is missed. He writes for voice and guitar, and can articulate all his ideas there; studio transformation is merely a chance to lay the song in a soft bed of very, very elaborate instrumentation and then let all that detail melt into the collective simplicity of the melody. There’s one notable exception to that rule, a series of echoing pizzicato notes (I think, or some synth simulation) on “When the Moon Brings the Silver,” and it might be the most haunting noise Pond has ever conjured in the shadow of a song’s basic melodic thrust.

For all of this, Pond has never had a great deal of love from the critical industrial complex, nor has the kind of non-innovative consistency that is his defining trait, and this has always struck me as evidence of a major social failing of our species. I can understand how a number of “faults” could be assigned to his music: lack of innovation; lack of eccentricity; trying too hard; not trying hard enough (these two cancel each other out: see the note on paradoxes, above); a sound in which everything is subordinate to the vocals; an occasional lethargy so profound you don’t want to admit it’s your own; overly general lyrics inspired by the natural world (the city, nature). I won’t argue against those qualities, except to say that some of them are synonyms for the very things that have always made me respect Pond as a man of art and obsession. Consistency (of subject matter, style) can be a force, and when it delivers this kind of talent it becomes a worthy substitute for artistic restlessness, resembles it even. It’s in the voice, sad and mild and so unwavering that it too becomes an unanticipated life force.

But, consistently what? you might be asking. What’s a celebration of consistency without a definition of the qualities that persist? That’s a question I really should answer, sometime, but the answer lies so far back, in the time when I first started loving Matt Pond, that it hardly seems possible to summon. And if you know his music, you know its pleasures are fairly transparent, so their occasional restatement suffices as proof of honesty, his own and his rapt listener’s. His music lacks the adept wordplay of our more resolute literary hero Joe Pernice, the soundplay (for the sake of an analogous term) of musical hero A.C. Newman, but he can claim the company of those guys because of his similarly tight orbit around the laughing specter of formal perfection.

One of the best things I ever did alone, on a night that solidified the good feeling of being alone and on my own, was to take some unfamiliar bus lines across the cities and see Matt Pond PA perform in a small theater, in 2006. After seven years of lateral growth, here are ten more songs about the romantic solitude of city life and the quest for emotional transference, and by now they’ve no doubt inspired another such bus ride, somewhere.


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