Album: Big Inner
Artist: Matthew E. White
Rating: 4 / 5
Two of my favorite experiences as a music listener are having a new album from a band I love be better than my expectations, and having an album from someone I’ve never heard of come out of the blue and be great. Matthew E. White’s Big Inner is the latter.
Big Inner came out in the U.S. in August 2012 and didn’t get very much press; I only discovered it because it was recently released in the UK, and it was being reviewed and talked about by British publications.
White is originally a jazz composer and arranger, and Big Inner occupies a strange place between smooth jazz, soft rock, and R&B.
The first thing you notice about Big Inner is that it’s sprawling. It only has seven songs, but it’s 42 minutes; the shortest track is over four minutes. Songs go through different movements, starting and ending in different places without you really noticing. Songs change rhythm and tempo every couple of minutes, subtly shifting between moods for verse, chorus, endings, etc.
Songs never feel disjointed or jarring, however. Plenty of the shifts and changes within a song are barely noticeable until you sit down and do nothing but listen to the album, at which point you realize how much consideration White has put into composing all of these songs.
For the most part, songs follow a trajectory similar to the opener, “One Of These Days.” Things start out mellow and laid back, with White singing over a simple bass line and percussion. These unwind and loosen up for the chorus, when a backing band comes in with horns. A guitar line comes and goes while backing vocals appear every now and then.
For the most part, this is White’s M.O. Songs start simple, usually with him singing over bass and drums. Throughout the song, he’ll layer on anything from guitars to shakers, horns to handclaps, and string quartets to backing vocals. These elements come and go as songs develop over their ample, running times.
For example, after a few minutes of the second track, “Big Love,” everything drops out except for some shakers and occasional stabs from a saxophone and piano. It sticks to this for a while, then a bass line comes back in and the song fades out for a few minutes over call and response vocals between White and background singers. Every shift in the song comes with a change in some combination of tempo, mood, and instrumentation, but you never feel like you’ve started listening to a different song.
This is the greatest strength of Big Inner, and probably comes from White’s time spent as a composer and arranger. He can dramatically change multiple elements of a song without fundamentally changing the song; in fact, usually without you consciously noticing it unless you’re listening closely.
This lends a laid back feel to the album as a whole. These songs feel developed and fully fleshed out. The changes within a song aren’t just to throw a curveball at the listener; they feel like a natural development and each song feels cohesive and carefully considered. Even if White changes things around multiple times in five minutes, it never feels like he’s in a hurry to get somewhere.
Unfortunately, composing is definitely White’s forte. He is not a particularly compelling lyricist or singer (although he’s not bad either).
The first four songs on the album deal with a breakup, and the last three mostly have vague religious themes while coming back to the breakup every now and then. Most of the time, White sounds slightly disinterested or emotionless when singing, and he has a pretty limited vocal range.
Fortunately, these aspects are overshadowed by White’s composition skills and the music of the album, which are enough alone to make it a very good effort.