In the 1960s, the folk music revival opened up a place for artists who loved traditional British song as much as they loved creating new material. Chief among those trad-influenced songwriters were the likes of Richard Thompson and his band Fairport Convention. If you’re wondering what became of that tradition, look no further than English singer-songwriter and guitarist Matthew Hegarty, leader of Matthew and the Atlas.
They started recording in 2009, self-releasing the EP Scavengers. The song “Beneath the Sea” gives a sense of the longing and darkness in their sound, qualities that have remained through the years in every version of the band and change of stylistic preferences. In the band’s early days, folk was the predominant flavor, although this waltz melody would never be mistaken for a traditional ballad; it’s clearly written after alt and Britpop bands like Radiohead and Oasis had paved the way.
Matthew and the Atlas’ originality began to emerge in the 2010 EP To the North, which also marked their debut with indie label Communion Records (where they were the first signed artists). Hegarty’s voice is as striking as the songs themselves. In “Veins of Your History,” his melody seems to reach back to the dawn of time, reminiscent of Dylan’s incalculable sadness in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The backup singers sustaining single syllables helps to give the illusion that the song is ancient. And note the mournful use of low brass, making the line “Oh, my love, you’re not alone” sound like it’s probably a lie:
Other Rivers was the group’s first full album, released in 2014. The most obvious characteristic of this collection is its departure from folk roots. Electric and acoustic-electric guitar and bass now join the drum kit and keyboards.
The wistfulness of “Into Gold” is brought out by the reverberating sound production. This is a song of a man lost in an unkind world: “I’ve been following stones I’ve thrown / I cannot seem to leave those days alone.” Hegarty, it turns out, had every reason to feel lost and traumatized. The songs on this and their most recent album reflect an autobiographical horror – Hegarty was attacked and stabbed nearly to death!
Other Rivers also includes a slick new recording of “To the North,” the title song from their earlier EP. There’s less of a raw folk sound now. The constant ostinato keyboard pattern is mesmerizing, and makes for an unusual combination with vocal harmonies out of American country music.
Hegarty shows off a pleasing baritone in “Out of the Darkness.” The melody is almost operatic. But the song acknowledges Hegarty’s folk roots in a surprising way, not so much in the musical style as the imagery in the lyrics. The British ballad tradition is filled with tales of the fantastical, and some of Hegarty’s language recalls such songs: “Deep below the earth I might have found you / High above the tower I could not see.”
Matthew and the Atlas’ latest album is Temple, released in 2016 and also on the Communion label. And, for the first time, they have made official music videos — one of them, anyway, for the title track “Temple.” I can’t say it contributes to the experience of listening. As for the song itself, the usual themes of loss and melancholy are still in the lyrics and arching melody, but the busy-ness of the arrangement (especially the nervous snare drum patterns) seems to work against that mood:
“Old Master” gives a better demonstration of the band’s current sound. They have not given up on their folk roots, not by a long shot. In fact, they released an acoustic version of Temple as well as the rock-tinged one. This video, a live performance from the Mahogany Sessions, shows how the band combines an acoustic foreground with an electronic backdrop. In the chorus of this delicate song, Hegarty also gets to show off an ethereal falsetto in short vocalise passages; he seems to want to contrast those heights with the very bottom of his range. While the verse melody is repetitive, the lush arrangement keeps the ear engaged.
It’s no surprise that Hegarty counts Nick Drake, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen among his favorite songwriters. More recent comparisons put him in the company of Bon Iver, Damien Rice, and Mumford & Sons. In the work of all those artists, lyricism shines a light in the darkness, but the darkness is cherished for its own sake. Matthew and the Atlas are walking down that same road.