With the recent arrival of The Flame, the posthumously published collection of poetry by Leonard Cohen, I feel like I am surely not alone in having a Cohen-shaped hole open up again. Around about the same time, I revisited my favourite album of this year, Matt Maltese’s Bad Contestant. You can join the dots. At only 21, this South London based songwriter has managed to tick every one of the existentialist-hipster boxes. Maltese’s debut album discusses climate change paranoia, broken hearts, ketamine, and the thrilling consummation of passion between Prime Minister May and President Trump, naturally.
The stage of Bristol’s greatest rave scene-cum-naval vessel, Thekla, was set; two gospel singers, a guitarist, a piano, drum kit, a bassist (who, according to Maltese, is the most handsome band member) and of course, a large neon love heart with one lightbulb broken. Then Matt strides on; effortlessly casual in his camel suit and a t-shirt, looking noticeably pleased by the turnout. It is this mixture of cool and modest that makes Maltese an exquisite act to see live. There is an almost tangible sense of gratitude between the awe-struck audience and the mild-mannered crooner. His band are superb. They are clearly one cohesive whole, totally at ease with each other. When Matt settles down at the piano to play ‘Less and Less’ solo the backing singers fix their gaze at him and listen intently, while the bassist leans against the sound system, and the guitarist nibbles the zip of his anorak. This display of absolute contentment certainly affected the crowd, who after a bit of rowdiness settled down into the set.
The mature honesty regarding sex, guilt and love makes it unbelievable that a 21-year-old can be this good this early into their career
Maltese manages to disarm you with a boyish wit. When introducing the song ‘Guilty’, he explained that it was about a time when he took “some silly drug”, asked out a girl who was in a relationship, and then, hungover, had to go ice-skating with his mum the next day. The performance of the song was sublime and surpassed the studio version by a long way. The funk guitar was heavily emphasised, and there was obvious joy on the guitarist’s face as they jammed together with thrilling ease. The obvious rapport between band members was reminiscent of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; you felt that the song could go in any direction and yet it still felt secure. Matt’s wit was also showcased when towards the end of the set he said, “and if you are a fan of encores, this is the last song”. When it concluded, the lights went out for perhaps 5 seconds, and then “aaand we are back”. Maltese’s willingness to play with conventions are reflected in the songs, where melancholic songs are treated with a sense of fun (like the melodic bridge of ‘Less and Less’), and funky songs can have lyrics which seem to cut to his core (“like a fish / that’s how I drink these days / it numbs every envy I have”).
They played two new songs, the second of which, ‘Hello, Black Dog’, gave a tantalising glimpse of what might come. It had the intensity of both lyrics and sound that reminded me, for the second time, of Nick Cave. Then you have the bizarre sexual themes in ‘Paper Thin Hotel’, which describes someone listening to their ex make love in the next-door room and feeling consoled by that, in the tradition of Cohen. The mature honesty regarding sex, guilt and love makes it unbelievable that a 21-year-old can be this good this early into their career. Seeing Matt and his band live is absolutely thrilling and truly communal. Yet, you ought to be warned that you may leave deeply envious of someone’s raw talent.