“It’s the indescribable conglomeration of beauty and ugliness that makes San Francisco a poem without meter, a symphony without harmony, a painting without reason – a city without equal.”
This quote by Herb Caen defines the very essence of Matt Nathanson’s ninth full length album, “Last of the Great Pretenders.” Nathanson, who lived in San Francisco since the early 1990’s, decided it was time to pay homage to the city which he loves so dearly. In a fan-based email he sent out at the beginning of December announcing that he was about to start studio recording, Nathanson said, “the songs feel San Francisco to me, so it makes sense that we’re recording here. They feel overcast, pacific ocean, twisted.”
One of the most unique things about this album is the cover. According to Matt, “Part of the fun of making a record, for me, is finding a title and coming up with the album cover. As a music fan/nerd, these things are what cement the album concepts AND give the songs a thread to hang from… for the listener, it’s one more level to dream on.” The photograph he chose to cement “The Last of the Great Pretenders” comes from a work of art by Mr. Philip Toledano, a photographer that Nathanson particularly admires.
This eleven track album features a sound unlike that of any of Nathanson’s previous records. It begins with the very minor “Earthquake Weather,” the quintessence of which can be summed into the first line of the song which states, “I’d kill anyone/ who’d treat you as bad as I do.”
The second song, “Mission Bells” was the first single off the album and was released to YouTube on March 11th this year. Upon my first listening, I was utterly blown away and uncontrollably excited. It sounds absolutely nothing like he had ever put forth to that point and, quite frankly, nothing I had ever heard before. While it does take an upward turn from the melodically haunting tune of “Earthquake Weather,” it still retains an aura of mystery.
The third track on the album is called “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco,” and, while far less ominous than the first two, it manages to retain a sense of almost nostalgia. Whenever I hear this song I feel reminiscent, both of memories I have and haven’t experienced in a very vicarious sense of wistfulness.
The album takes a dramatic upturn with the next song “Kink’s Shirt,” singing the story of infatuation about a man who “can’t stop thinking ‘bout the girl in the Kink’s shirt.” It provides almost a comic relief from the seriousness of the album thus far.
“Sky High Honey” is the fifth track on the album and the second single to be released. It takes the album back down to a more solemn tone with a song about lost love and the memories that had been shared.
The nest song is one of my favorites on the album. “Annie’s Always Waiting (for the Next One to Leave)” is a song that, much like Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” or “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, sounds upbeat and happy until you actually listen to the lyrics. While it may sound cheerful, Matt actually wrote about the story of a girl with “a master’s degree in disappointment,” or at least, that’s what she said to him.
The seventh song, “Kill the Lights” stays with the motif of upbeat tunes with an almost syncopated sound that I find to be absolutely addicting as it talks about living life while you’re young enough to enjoy it.
“Heart Starts” is the eighth track and is actually as happy as it sounds, talking about how, despite all the walls the singer’s built around his heart, he wants this girl to love him until his heart starts and until he feels it kick in.
The first time I heard the next song, “Birthday Girl,” I was immediately struck with its resemblance to Matt’s song “Princess” which was released on his “When Everything Meant Everything” EP in 2002. Both have the same kind of sound as well as message and I fell in love with it.
I have to talk about the last two tracks, “Sunday New York Times” and “Farewell, December” (respectively) together because in my mind the two are inseparable. I can’t listen to one without listening to the other. Despite the polarity in the lyrics, the two songs make the very core of my soul ache in almost an identical manner.
“Sunday New York Times” is another nostalgic song about the heart wrenching denial that comes with the end of relationships and the ambivalence you feel.
I could not imagine a better song than “Farewell, December” to end the album because it vividly describes a New Year’s celebration and how it’s the end of an era but also a beginning, much like every album is.
From keeping up with Matt Nathanson on social media as well as email, it’s plain to see that this album comes from a place very dear to him. The lyrics are deeper. The songs are more holistic. Everything about this album is beautiful. In his words, “all the records I love, all the great records in the world, are FULL of holes. Big, imperfect, glorious holes. And the songs on them didn’t come from fear. Or self-consciousness. They came from the mess… they came from human beings being swept away
in the NOT knowing. No judgments, no control. I’m not saying they weren’t revised or tweaked. I’m saying… it wasn’t pre-meditated. The greatness just showed up. And greatness can only show up when an artist is being truthful. Wide open. Un-self-conscious.”