Photo Credit: Jimmy Fontaine / Atlantic Records
While the cover artwork and a couple of the song titles (“Blood Runs Red,” “Lawless Dream,” “Twisted Tongue”) might suggest that it’s a heavy metal album, Matt Maeson’s second full-length album Never Had to Leave is instead a tight and compelling collection of well-produced alternative rock and folk tracks from the twenty-nine-year-old singer-songwriter from Virginia Beach. It’s been more than three years since his only previous album (which bore another menacing-sounding title, Bank on the Funeral), but the current release suggests that those years were put to good use.
The approach on the dozen cuts on Never Had to Leave ranges from relatively simple to what seems like a great deal going on at once. The title track definitely falls into the latter category. Despite the underlying singer/songwriter-y vibe (which is present on a lot of the record), the song features a faint electronic backbeat echoing “Numb,” U2’s WTF? single from 1993. However, lyrically the Maeson composition uses the metaphor of an astronaut reporting from outer space (“I’m in the atmosphere // I see the clouds and oceans // I see it all so clear”) which also makes it obviously comparable to David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity.”
This isn’t the only song that might remind the listener of a classic rock cut: “Cry Baby” is a traditional somber but uptempo acoustic number that is on the threshold of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” The single “Cut Deep” is another strong, mostly acoustic cut, in which the raw emotion comes through despite the slick production which defines essentially the whole album. The truly “quiet” songs on the album also work well, particularly “Sanctified,” the piano ballad “Nelsonwood Lane” and the soft arpeggio which drives “Waltz Right In.”
However, lest he is compartmentalized as a mellow balladeer, Maeson is definitely capable of producing music with a bit more tartness, even if in those cases he might also invoke other artists. While it might seem that “Lonely as You” is lyrically inspired by Kurt Cobain (“I am the pop star in your room // F*ck this bullsh*t // I am hedonistic // And I’ll rot every seed that you grew”), the way it’s sung and even framed in the song itself might remind listeners a bit more on another major ’90s rock entity, Art Alexakis and Everclear. Additionally, the vocal style on “Blood Runs Red,” might at times even include just a hint of Eminem.
Although, on much of the album, the one artist which listeners will be most reminded of will be Hozier (“Take Me to Church”), particularly on tracks such as “Memory Away” and the aforementioned “Blood Runs Red” and “Twisted Tongue.” Maeson definitely does create a similar sort of vibe, coming forth with very pronounced and modern-sounding production yet at the same time managing to come through with stripped-down and sincere emotions. Those two defining elements balance each other rather than being competitive, and the end result is solid and formidable. True to its title, Never Had to Leave suggests that Matt Maeson will be well-situated for a stay in the modern pop-rock climate, at least for the foreseeable future.