Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles
rtists change styles all the time. It’s part of the fabric of music, both for those who create and for those who absorb. If artists’ styles remained static, we likely wouldn’t have disgruntled fans, boiler-plate interview fare like “This record is really different from our first…” or music critics. But what happens when an artist moves on from a sound too quickly? In retrospect, it’s tough to blame Bob Dylan for abandoning traditional folk music; he’d basically explored most of its possibilities by the time he went electric. But does anyone think that Beck moved away from the Odelay sound too quickly? Raise your hand if you could’ve lived through another Screamadelica before Primal Scream got all artsy.
On his 2004 debut, A Whisper and a Sigh, French artist Syd Matters sprinkled buzzing electronics over his tortoise-paced pop-folk, resulting in one of last year’s tragically over-looked albums. On Someday we will Foresee Obstacles, Matters doesn’t abandon his old tools, but the focus shifts from atmospheric acoustic-electronic mash-ups to traditional pop arrangements. Moog runs and symphonic swells replace jitterbug blips as Matters fishes stronger, more distinct songs out of his hushed arrangements.
Whatever genres he’s peddling, Matters is an unsparing romantic, often infusing his placid string-plucking with whispers of hope and encouragement. The album title nails things down pretty well, its innocent optimism tempered by the implication that obstacles exist in the present, and they are in fact not being foreseen. Conveniently enough, “Obstacles,” from which the disc pulls its name, serves as a blueprint for Matters’ sound. Electronic fuzz oscillates in the background, as Matters sways in and out of a lilting tune, lines like “We played hide and seek in waterfalls” sharing the same melodic cadence as the album title. Keyboard strings swell in the background, and Matters chants, “We were younger” over a soft crescendo of strings and hard drives.
Matters is such an enticing lyrical presence that it’s endlessly frustrating to watch him pussyfoot around with his arrangements, few of which blend his pillow-y ruminations and deft electronic composition as well as “Obstacles.” Though not yet middle-of-the-road mush, Matters fails to improve upon the feathery electro-acoustic meld of A Whisper. The aesthetic hasn’t changed much, but an over-reliance on Matters’ mostly utilitarian guitar playing leaves little room for the charming hard-drive manipulations that set A Whisper apart from too-soft folk-pop.
“Flow Backwards” illustrates the record’s dilemma: a series of surprisingly violent images (“Hit by a car / C’mon / Drown in a river / Yeah”) are overshadowed by a listless background of subtly swelling strings and splashy cymbals. By the time Matters intones, “I float backwards” in a mush-mouthed drawl, elongating the vowels, we’re left with flaccid Radiohead balladry with 10 to 15 percent less paranoia The next song, “English Way,” practically confirms the Thom Yorke fixation, as Matters sings “If you leave me high and dry…” before a minor-key piano melody ushers in a craggy guitar solo.
Mere mimicry, however, isn’t Obstacles’ damnable sin, but rather a byproduct of Matters’ curious choice to break away from the electronic fidgeting that distinguished A Whisper. Obstacles does make great songwriting strides: Whereas A Whisper blended into one long soundscape, Obstacles features distinct melodic moments, from the twee pop of “Someday Sometimes” to the hymn-like “Passe Muraille.” The increased songwriting clarity still seems like a concession, however, in the face of Matters’ debut, which seemed pregnant with ideas. Neither a proper misfire nor a successful reinvention, Someday we will Foresee Obstacles poses more questions than it answers, leaving hope that by the time his next album rolls around, Matters will rediscover the production qualities of his debut or more fully distinguish himself as a pop songwriter.