Australian take on gothic Americana provides an antidote to optimism.
Matt Malone’s third album, ‘For The Term Of My Natural Life’ fits in the gothic Americana category. That’s the one someone once described as replete with songs that “examine poverty, criminal behaviour, religious imagery, death, ghosts, family, lost love, alcohol, murder, the devil, and betrayal.” Malone checks most of those boxes.
The album leads off with ‘For The Term of My Natural Life’, which addresses poverty. ‘Best Day of My Life’ and ‘The Stranger’ tell of lost love and betrayal. Criminal behaviour gets a nod in ‘Crazy Jane’. In ‘Unrepentant Thief’, Malone pulls off a hat trick, managing to fit in references to family (‘I betrayed my only mother’) as well as religion and the devil (‘For I am the thief/Who mocked God’s only son/To hell I shall be/And to the devil I belong’).
This album updates the Victorian preoccupation with death and loss as exemplified in the 1896 ballad ‘In The Baggage Coach Ahead’ or ‘Lost On The Lady Elgin’ by focusing on emotional and personal loss. There are echoes of more contemporary songwriters. Malone’s ‘Love, You’ve Given To Me’ is a reminder of Dylan’s ‘I threw It All Away’. And Malone himself has noted that ‘The Stranger’ is lyrically “the closest to Leonard Cohen on the album – a songwriter who has inspired me immensely over the years,” although Malone lacks Dylan’s wry witticism and Cohen’s underlying sense of hope. In ‘For The Terms of My Natural Life’ there aren’t any cracks to let the light in.
The lyrics also lack the poetry of great songwriting. There is a recurring problem with lines that conjure up images so ambiguous as to almost be surreal. For example, “Just bury me six feet under/In the barrel of a gun” is evocative but it would take a pretty big gun. Sometimes Malone seems to be channelling Edgar Allen Poe, as in ‘The Stranger’: “She went out the door/Cried, ‘with you nevermore’/Put her foot to the floor/Said, ‘goodbye evermore”. At other points, he seems to have been inspired by Hallmark: “You deserve a man/Someone with a real good plan/To hold you all through the night/Until the first morning light.”
The album sounds like a Ennio Morricone score for a Cormac McCarthy movie. Malone’s baritone voice sets a sombre tone that is emphasized by the accompanying heavy bass lines from Adam Casey and Ash Jones’ melancholy violin. Simon Edwards provides the funeral drumbeats that emphasise the overall atmosphere of desolation. Katie Walsh’s backing vocals provide just enough contrast to remind us how dour things are.
Anyone walking on the sunny side can rely on one thing after sitting down with Monroe – it will all be turned around, the glass isn’t ever half full. So why sit down with Monroe? Maybe there is as role for musical commentary on the perfidy of humankind. There is a category for Death Country after all. But ultimately, one has to ask that key question: While Monroe’s music matches his lyrics, what does that effort create?