Matt Nathanson has previously been an indie singer-songwriter of the Scrubs subgenre; catchy, yet soulful, mostly acoustic ballads that lull you into a lovely state of relaxation, a feeling that ‘everything is gonna be alright’, as in “I Saw”, his 2003 indie hit.
His 2007 release Some Mad Hope saw him moving in a poppier direction, but he maintained some indie cred with his acoustic arrangements.
His new release, Modern Love, cements his transition to a full-fledged indie pop artist. There’s just one problem. His lyricism is too good for pop music, even indie pop.
I’ll use “Mercy”, a free download this week on iTunes, as an example.
The song is well-produced and catchy, and I’m always a fan of hi-fi productions, but that’s just an aside. The real triumph of the song lies in the message put forth by the lyrics. Whereas most pop songs with deep synth bass today use their lyrics to convey the message that dancing is good and having fun is great and hookups are better than relationships. “Mercy” is much more complex and interesting. Nathanson recalls his fun hookups, but then becomes dismayed when ‘they don’t call’, and the void remains, asking for ‘real love’. The good times and the hookups are even compared to the biblical story of Adam and Eve with an allusion to the Garden of Eden in the second verse, singing “this garden’s for snakes and fruit”. The percussive sounds he emphasizes in the same verse not only add to the song musically, but also serve to reflect the quick, sensual and sometimes painful nature of the ‘love in the dark’. In the chorus, he asks for ‘mercy’, and in the bridge, he asks for ‘your hand in mine’, a symbol of real love, beyond a fun hookup.
I think it’s a smarter song than it originally leads you to believe, and for that reason, despite Nathanson’s pop tendencies shining through, it is an excellent song, whether or not I like it as much as I might if it were arranged like Nathanson circa 2003.