Music review: Matt Nathanson – Last of the Great Pretenders

Matt Nathanson’s musical love letter to San Francisco proves that radio-ready rock doesn’t have to be soulless.

After more than a decade of producing DIY rock music that mostly stayed beneath the radar, Matt Nathanson has taken a slow swerve towards the mainstream in recent years. Unfortunately, the carefully-calculated polish of his recent work (Some Mad Hope, Modern Love) has too often resulted in songs that are weaker than his early, indie efforts. New album Last of the Great Pretenders is yet another attempt to redress this balance and produce pop-rock for the masses that also retains the grit that made Nathanson’s early songs so likeable.

Paying your dues pays off

What’s immediately obvious is that Great Pretenders displays a veteran’s command of song-writing and performance. This is unsurprising, since when I think of musicians who have paid their dues, I inevitably think of Matt Nathanson.

The idea of spending your formative years playing poky music venues and releasing indie records for an audience of dozens may be outdated, it may be problematic. But, in the case of Nathanson, this process of ‘paying your dues’ has given him a deft musical touch. (If you ever have the chance to see Nathanson play live, take it. His live shows invariably bring energy, wit and feel-good rock music.)

Sunshine and fog

In Great Pretenders, Nathanson plays up his fifteen years of living in San Francisco by creating an album that not only name-checks the landmarks of the city (Alcatraz, the pretty boys in the Castro, the “Earthquake weather”), but also evokes its sunshine and fog, its shrugging joie de vivre.

In writing a musical love letter to San Francisco, Nathanson succeeds in producing perhaps his most cohesive album to date. And, for anyone who loves San Francisco, the plethora of great songs about SF make for a genuine treat.

Catchy songs

Indeed, the gems in Great Pretenders are so utterly gem-like that it’s tempting to call the album a win and say no more about it. First single ‘Mission Bells’ is instantly memorable. The catchy chorus is singalonga rock music at its best, but the dark verses hint at layers to be peeled back slowly and savoured.

This theme – of catchy songs that also offer a surprising amount of originality and emotional ‘meat’ – continues in the album’s other stand-outs, ‘Kill the Lights’ and ‘Earthquake Weather’. This is radio-ready rock music that doesn’t have to sacrifice its heart and soul in order to be catchy.

Forgettable ballads

Unfortunately, the bombastic elements of Great Pretenders make its ballads pale into insignificance. When Nathanson manages to handle dark subjects so deftly on upbeat songs like ‘Mission Bells’, it becomes frustrating that his slow jams are so quick to sink into maudlin sentiment.

It’s not the lyrics that are the problem. In fact, great lyrics are staple in Great Pretenders. Nathanson displays a gorgeous flair for thoughtful, unexpected vignettes in his lyrics. Yet the melodies don’t always match up. Lyrically, songs like ‘Heart Starts’ and ‘Annie’s Always Waiting (For the Next One to Leave)’ are fantastic; musically, they’re only okay.

Emotionally engaging

To be completely honest, Matt Nathanson was an artist I’d fallen a little bit out of love with. Despite being a big fan of his early work, I never quite forged an emotional connection to his last two albums. I was glad when he began to get the airplay and mainstream success I always thought he deserved. But when I’d hear ‘Come On Get Higher’ played on American Idol (for instance), I could only ever think of all the far superior songs in Nathanson’s back catalogue.

However, I’m relieved at how much I like Great Pretenders. Though still flawed, I think it’s a solid, likeable album. Best of all, more than its two predecessors, it’s an emotionally engaging album – one that draws a definite line between Nathanson’s early days of DIY rock and his current status as a go-to guy for radio-ready rock.

Highlights: ‘Kill the Lights’, ‘Mission Bells’, ‘Kinks Shirt’

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