There Is An Ocean That Divides might at first confuse. While not a million miles removed, Australian singer-songwriter Scott Matthew shouldn’t find it too hard to differentiate himself from UK-based acoustic troubador Scott Matthews. By far the easiest way of separating the two is by Matthew’s redolent vocal style, though he’s still best known on these shores for scoring most of the soundtrack to John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus.
Although it will soon start to feel like an albatross hanging around his neck, his voice calls David Bowie readily to mind. This comparison isn’t exactly a bad thing, of course, and will hopefully ensure Matthew generates a popularity his music justifies. But as his slow-dripping, inebriating second album takes hold, it becomes clear that this Antipodean secret shouldn’t have to rely on vocal similitudes for recognition.
The Bowie comparison aside, his gentle, whispered quavers feel almost feminine, bringing to mind both Alison Moyet and kd lang. It’s only when Matthew sings from his lungs that The Thin White Duke is conjured. Pared-down arrangements and abstract German lyrical forays are the closest Matthew comes to all out imitation.
Matthew’s closest contemporary musical reference point is probably Antony Hegarty, whom he supports at this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival. Combining melodic moods that waver between the maudlin and the slightly less maudlin with beautifully arranged orchestral arrangements, Matthew’s music, like that of Antony And The Johnsons, is intimate and often totally bewitching. The opening lines of Every Traveled Road set a doleful mood that lingers throughout the course of the album: “Every sweet hello / there’s a bitter goodbye / with every happy song / there’s one to make you cry.”
The polarity of the album’s opening lyric symbolises the album as a whole. Flittering between spaces of lonely solitude and a more hopeful sort of resolution, Matthew is not always as downcast as that sounds. During Ornament he confesses: “I’ve taken drugs / I’ve taken sides / and the devil himself taught me alibis / and now you’ve seen all that I’ll never be.” As Matthew communicates with his ex-love, there are moments where he appears to be grasping at the flickering remnants of an inner strength – and there’s the sense that there may be hope for the future. Quite often, however, Matthew is simply overcome with sadness.
The achingly beautiful title track painfully exposes Matthew’s depressive tendencies: “My love lies over the ocean / long ago it fumbled in my hand / I’m a fool to stoke and tend a dying fire / doubt I’ll ever make it back to land.” With a tenderness that often strays close to unpalatability, Matthew makes something beautiful out of something wincingly raw. Importantly, the album’s chord progressions are always agreeable, enabling the listener to relax with the album without feeling intimidated by its seriousness and mawkishness.
Thistle feels like an overdue mood lifter. Its comforting brass composition and Matthew’s parting cackle help to offset what is, at times, a challenging record. Although Friends And Foes closes the album with a wallowing melody, Matthew offers the listener a reassuring message: “In the darkest of oceans there’s light.” While we will never fully appreciate Scott Matthew’s anguish, this man’s gentle genius won’t easily be confused with anything else or anyone else.