Here's something fascinating. Matt Elliott is British but he lives in France where he's a noted folk musician in the neo-folk movement. His music is dark and melancholy and the one immediate and abiding comparison is to Leonard Cohen, but it doesn't take long to realise that this is something different. His voice, as we hear quickly on the opener, The End of Days, is whispery and beautifully broken just like latter day Cohen, but his hypnotic Spanish guitar rhythms is more reminiscent of Cohen's first two albums. That's an interesting pairing and it works very well indeed.
The biggest difference between Elliott and Cohen is that Cohen's songs were fundamentally about delivering lyrics, with the music, as glorious as it often was, serving to support that task. Elliott is a musician perhaps before he's a singer and poet, and he's keen on taking these folk songs into jazz territory, not just playing guitar but also saxophone, in a way that mimics a clarinet. One of the six songs on offer is an eight minute instrumental and the others feature long instrumental passages that work wonderfully on their own and somehow bring a strange focus onto the words.
Elliott is not the poet that Cohen was, though there are some wonderful phrases to suggest that he could be—"Sweep away the broken glass; some things were never made to last" begins Song of Consolation—and he has the brevity that the best poets find, discarding a thousand words to keep the one that matters. He's been a solo artist since 2003, previously known for indie electronica and remixes, usually credited as the Third Eye Foundation. I believe he's still active under that name, a primary band that's become over time a side project to his solo work in neofolk and dark jazz.
These two elements mix gloriously and the title track is a fantastic example. It starts out folk, just like a Cohen song, but the words don't stand out, maybe being an angry response to COVID, the guitar standing out far more and growing into jazz, as a sort of mad funeral dirge which is utterly gorgeous, not unlike the funeral procession for the elephant in Santa Sangre. It unfolds over ten minutes and they're ten unfathomably short minutes, even though it feels when they're over that we've just listened to an entire album, not just a single song.
January's Song takes us back to the folk. When the vocals arrive, they appear to be in choral form but it may well just be Elliott accompanying himself through echo and overlay. This is even more of a melancholy piece than the opener, but it's that rich sort of melancholy that Cohen mastered and which always lifts me rather than depresses me. It always tells me that times are dark but there's still beauty to be found and both are inherent in this music. There are precious few lyrics here, an isolated verse, but they seem to respond to COVID in succinct fashion. It's all about mood, the jazz swirling around the guitar like a tiny storm.
The most beautiful piece is the instrumental, Healing a Wound Will Often Begin with a Bruise. It's almost a vocal piece with the guitar providing the voice, because it's that sort of lead instrument, but it feels like an instrumental immediately. I was almost wary of Elliott's voice showing up but it never does, until the next song, Flowers for Bea, the twelve and a half minute epic of the album. It also has few lyrics, so after a a slow verse, it shifts into instrumental mode, driven this time by the cello of Gaspar Claus. Eventually there's a second verse that fades out in an echo, as if we're in an empty hall that still contains the ghosts of its years. It's all grief, but the emotions behind that do change over the dozen minutes.
There's a lot of emotion here, even when Elliott isn't singing, though his voice adds fresh levels to that emotion. Unresolved, for instance, is just a short piece to wrap up, but it's a sort of refusal to acknowledge that a loved one is gone. Never mind Flowers for Bea, which are exactly what you're thinking because she's gone, this one asks when she's coming back, even though she never will. I'm sure there's a word in another language to describe that feeling.
I like this a lot and need to dig back to see how Elliott got to this point. Not everything solo seems to be in this vein, but it may have moved more and more towards this dark folk/jazz hybrid. It may be that it's primarily for the Ici, d'ailleurs label in France. At this point in time, it's special. I feel a need to know when he got there.