A New Double Album from Matthew Clark
A couple months ago, somewhere deep in the Mississippi flatlands off Interstate 55, a pony-tailed hippie held forth before a rapt congregation. He wielded an old guitar, and offered coffee that he had roasted himself. He told stories, and he wore sandals because his toes required constant sunlight to live. That hippie’s name was Matthew Clark. The occasion was Cofferstowe, a gathering Matthew himself put together to celebrate beauty and the resurrectional truth behind all creation and to provide a restful retreat for those present. It offered music by Andy Gullahorn, Christa Wells, and Abbye West Pates, along with breakout sessions centered around the gift of imagination and its work within the Kingdom of Christ.
In the wake of this—and with a characteristic amount of semi-reticent humility—Matthew is now releasing a double album, Beautiful Secret Life, a calico amalgam of exquisite songwriting that spans styles yet consistently envelopes the listener in balladeer songcraft.
The overarching quality present here is clarity. The production and musicianship mirror each other with a lucidity that makes the songs function like well-executed photographs. Every note is a prismatic drop of rainwater caught midway down a leaf. Every instrument plays in Kodachrome color, and the array of aural hues runs deep and wide. Uilleann pipes, string arrangements, Matthew’s hammered dulcimer work, a clarinet worthy of Gershwin, saxophone, and kokyu (a bowed Japanese string instrument) all find a home within the record.
Behind the double album—a considerable feat in any musician’s career, even the fifth time out of the gate as it is here—lies Matthew’s Song-of-the-Month Subscription, a service in which patrons signed up to receive a brand new download each month. In Matthew’s words, “If I dropped the ball on my writing, I’d be stealing someone’s money, which kept me on my toes.” It was a creative exercise with high stakes, and it included within its framework not only the obligation to give people what they asked (and paid) for, but also an amount of personal material from many of those same patrons, just waiting to be spun into singable gold. Consequently, the album does not shy away from looking into dark and difficult places for glimmers of light.
An old man got up close,And whispered through his tears,“Oh God, I killed so many people back there,Back there in the war.I’m still back there in that war.And I’m sorry, I’m sorry for all the things that I have seen.” —“Dying to Believe”
Eight years into marriage,John’s legs just quit working.You were paralyzed by worry,Watching as the surgeonSaid his spinal cord was broken.You came so close to leaving then. —“Learning a Mystery”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all is woe and weeping. There is a good deal of fun to be had. Those who know Matthew best will recognize his deadpan comedic delivery.
Hello, my name is Annabelle,And if you let me borrow your hippo,I promise I’ll take good care of him, it’s true. —“Cinderbella” Most people think an artist is some big shot,Romantic, hero-type.That’s totally true. —“Ordinary Artists”
There is a literate elasticity to the lyrics. Matthew often braves words uncommon to the pop or folk-song lexicons but still manages to make them approachable. The maturity and comfort evident in the songwriting give listeners the space to breathe within the music, even with such complex writing.
You say that melody is a river,Quakes and quivers as it waters weary lands,Driven by the Holy Spirit,Like a wind that whispers prayers too deep to comprehend.And, O, I sang to wake the children,When the moon rolled away like a stone to free the dead,Chiming through the bitter,Like the wood thrush breaks the winter every spring. —“When the Hammer Strikes”
This is a fantastic expansion of Matthew’s catalog. Along with Cofferstowe, Beautiful Secret Life is a revelation of great things present and to come. Like an anthology of good, strong poetry, this record will bear multiple listens and wear well on the discerning ear.
Beautiful Secret Life releases on July 19th and is available, along with more of Matthew’s good work, at MatthewClark.net.