It’s easy to be suspicious of Matt Maltese. He’s seemingly appeared from nowhere with the full force of Atlantic’s PR budget behind him (although he’s actually been releasing songs since 2016), he specialises in arch, witty pop and has been compared by more than a few people to Father John Misty, and his Twitter bio describes his genre as “Brexit pop”.
So do we need yet another ironic pop star playing a character and casting a sideways glance at relationships? Well, it turns out that, when they’re as talented as Matt Maltese, we certainly do. Bad Contestant is an album that certainly invites comparisons – his voice alone is reminiscent of Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker and, maybe more problematically these days, Morrissey – but his songs are stamped with his own personality.
Greatest Comedian kicks off the album and is a fine example of Maltese’s talent: a lovelorn ode to a missing love, with lines like “I have heard that Jesus was a very handsome girl, if she were I’d bet she’d look something like you now”. It’s a warm, summery song, no doubt helped by the presence behind the production desk of Jonathan Rado from Foxygen, who sprinkles some of his own band’s dreamy magic on Maltese’s songs.
Maltese certainly knows how to write a pop hook – after a few listens, you’d be convinced that any of these songs could easily take up residence in the charts. Less And Less is a gorgeous piano ballad, Guilty could be straight from The Divine Comedy‘s catalogue of quirky love songs, and Like A Fish is far too catchy than a song dripping in self-loathing should be (“like a fish, that’s how I drink these days… it numbs the envy I have against your tall kind man, he’s so much taller than I ever will be”).
However, there’s also an eccentricity to Maltese’s music that stops it from ever becoming bland or formulaic. On the surface, Nightclub Love is a conventional love song about falling in love at a nightclub, but it’s scattered with lines like “I bought cranberry vodka, it’s good for your bladder”. Sweet 16 meanwhile sees him reminiscing over his school crush with the self-winking line of “I can always passively-aggressively put you in a song”.
Then there’s the standout As The World Caves In, which imagines Theresa May and Donald Trump ending the world, getting drunk, having sex and watching television. It’s a vision which may well have you reaching for the bleach to clean your mind’s eye, but it’s set to a beautiful, soaring melody, and Maltese’s voice is enough to give you shivers. Strange is another song about partying through the apocalypse (“now that we’re doomed, let me show you to your room”), but it’s the yearning, slightly woozy atmosphere that sounds so like Richard Hawley that leaves the deepest impression.
The biggest problem with ironic pop is that it can sometimes be too arch, and too knowing. Maltese gets around this by never letting a raised eyebrow overshadow his heart. Bad Contestant is full of strange little pop songs that can delight and subvert in equal measure and makes for a pretty startling debut, all in all.