Virginian musician Matthew E White looks like he’s auditioning to become the newest member of the Fleet Foxes on the cover of his debut album, entitled Big Inner. In fact, the heavily bearded musician has much loftier ambitions.
Big Inner is the first release from White’s label Spacebomb, a project centered around a house band that will become the basis of all future recordings by artists on the label. It’s an intriguing concept and one that is strongly rooted in old models like Motown.
Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that Big Inner was met with widespread praise when it was released in America last year. But there’s much more than just the Motown-esque label structure behind the success of White’s debut album. Big Inner really is an album to get lost in, with its soulful, heart-warming core making it almost impossible to dislike. If that sounds cheesy and a bit corny, then think again. From the gradual, sparse arrangement of opener One Of These Days to the stunning 10-minute closer Brazos, White hardly puts a foot wrong.
One of the central themes behind the record is White’s religious faith, which is hardly surprising considering he is the son of Christian missionaries. The gospel-infused Gone Away is the most powerful example of White dealing with spirituality and the subject of life and death. The song, which was written on the night his young cousin died, captures all the emotions that a family would go through following the death of a loved one, as White sings: “Gone away, child/ taken away/ why are you living in heaven today?/ why are you living there now?” It manages to be both heartbreakingly beautiful and life-affirming at the same time.
It’s followed by the jaunty, shuffling beat of Steady Pace, which once again demonstrates White’s superior ear for arrangement. The syncopated horns are layered with a driving piano melody and female backing vocals to provide another uplifting and compelling chorus. While the house band gives the song an emphasis and completely different sound to anything else around at the moment, it is White’s ability to tie all the different components together that is even more impressive.
This is evident on the phenomenally addictive Big Love, a song that could have easily fitted on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica – it’s that good. The cinematic strings provide the basis for frantic piano keys and sporadic horns, as the song gradually builds towards a euphoric finish. Meanwhile, the wistful strings of Will You Love Me perfectly complements White’s contemplative lyricism, as he sings: “Darkness can’t drive out darkness/ only love can do that, baby.” However, despite the quality of the first five songs on Big Inner, White saves the best till last.
When you create an album as impressive as Big Inner, it is crucial to leave the listener wanting more and that is exactly what closer Brazos achieves. The house band are in full force throughout the song, which builds with atmospheric strings and a stumbling drum beat as the brass section repeatedly threaten to reach a crescendo. Then at half-way, the song virtually comes to a stop, before White’s vocal comes in over a rumbling bassline to sing: “Jesus Christ is our Lord/ Jesus Christ he is our friend.” As album closers go, it’s pretty special. Then again, as albums go, Big Inner is pretty special. Overall, Matthew E White and his Spacebomb house band have created a brilliant debut, one that will undoubtedly have artists queueing up to be a part of this newly established project.