5th February 2016; Driftless
On first listen to the title track on Matt Kivel’s new album Janus, I am immediately calm. An acoustic guitar is lovingly plucked in a melody that sounds familiar, then joined by Kivel’s delicate voice that’s barely more than a whisper. Some equally soft harmonies are sung, but are almost put on the back shelf behind Kivel’s peaceful words. A solid verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure followed by a folky interlude featuring violin sub-melodies and a big drum roll before returning to a quiet verse to mirror the opening, the song almost asks for something more to get your teeth into. But then the second track, Violets, delivers as I’m hooked by the first few bars (and consequently regret my earlier lack of faith in the album to produce something more substantial). The song gives off a pretty and summery vibe – imagine a warm, hazy day sat in a field surrounded by flowers – but the minor chords in the chorus suggest the summer will not last.
Track three opens with a finger-picked acoustic guitar and those beautiful vocals again. The end of the chorus treats you to an almost Spanish melody that I challenge you to get out of your head. (Spoiler: it won’t.) Pyrrha ends with a cute perfect cadence that would normally be a little cringe-worthy but he makes it work. Anything else would be wrong for this endearing album. He takes a slower turn on the next track, Prime Meridian, with some sustained piano chords and brushed jazz drums. The beginning of each line of the verse reminds me of a Christmas carol and there’s a harmonica in the background at one point. I like it so far, but it loses me at the chorus. It all goes a bit too far with clashing chords and scratching brass instruments that scream at you at for a few seconds before returning to the Christmassy plod along of the verse.
We return to acoustic normality with No Return, and Janice, but then another unexpected turn takes me by surprise on Jamie’s. So far the album has been (mostly) all flowers and sunshine and joy, but the subject matter on this track really comes out of the blue. Kivel sings with a mournful tone of a character Jamie, who tells her family she’s gay. Each member disregards the confession and overlooks it in denial – and suddenly Jamie’s in a pool of blood in a bath. There’s some weird out-of-place synth stabs that sound a little like futuristic lasers and don’t add anything to the song, then it’s over. I feel a bit out of sorts. Penultimate The Shining Path sounds like it could be written by Badly Drawn Boy, and the enjoyable finale, Orpheus, has a contemporary folk feel that I picture being incredible performed live. Kivel sings a parallel melody to the guitar and concludes by asking the listener, “What do I know?” which, coincidentally, is how I feel about the whole album. It takes so many twists and turns I’m still not really sure what to make of it.