Magnetic North is a “back-from-the-brink” record, in Matt Hales’ words. In 2007, the singer-songwriter announced his retirement to a London audience unprepared for such news. Since then, Hales’ bold statement has lost sustainability with the simple fact that the man is still writing songs, albeit from a new base in sunny California.
Magnetic North happens to be the first collection of original Aqualung songs since both declaration of retirement and address change, and it reveals a rejuvenated spirit sparkling in a musician who had seemingly lost his enthusiasm.
Hales’ records have rarely conjured up an emotion above melancholy but, in celebration of his return, this latest effort never sounds weighed down by negativity; instead it carries a sincere message of hope, borne out by guest vocalists Sara Bareilles, Alison Sudol and Kelly Sweet across 12 songs of deep, heartfelt, inner joy.
California, at just under two minutes long, might be the songwriter’s finest song since the early, heady days in 2002 when the single Strange And Beautiful lured in advertising deals from all sides. California’s talk of making “our big mistake, before we come undone” displays Hales’ vulnerability as he jets off to a new destination with full of dreams and new ideas.
“Big mistake” it might not be. Announcing itself through New Friend’s Beck-like blues swagger, Magnetic North delivers punch after punch of simple yet drastic and immediate songwriting. Sundowning’s melancholic strings whimper with little faith, Time Moves swings in and out of buoyancy and sorrow. The album-closing title track exhibits Hales as solitary, at one with an impelling piano performance.
Break ground he doesn’t, but Hales more than declares himself a name still to be reckoned with. As a child writing songs from the age of four, a young man whose symphony was self-conducted at the age of 17 and an established songsmith chosen to contribute to the latest Leona Lewis record, Hales has never held anything below serious ambition. On Magnetic North he doesn’t unleash any hidden talent. Instead, he reassures those afraid that a proven craftsman was heading for the exit door.