May 13, 2010

The Unsung Matthew Good

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Matthew Good

“Which way is Wall Street?” asks Matthew Good, the cool older brother of Canadian alternative rock. It’s a warm Friday night in early April and Good is in the middle of a headlining set at the Bowery Ballroom, his first visit to the venue in 10 years. It takes the crowd a few seconds to come to a consensus that Wall Street is behind them. “OK, I want all of you to turn around,” he says, “and I want you to give Wall Street the middle finger.” There are some chuckles, but everyone does as he asks.

Good, a Vancouver native, spends as much time as a political activist and blogger as he does making politically charged music as a solo artist, an offshoot of his successful ’90s group Matthew Good Band, which broke up in 2002. During the band’s reign as one of the decade’s most successful Canadian acts, Good frequently wrote “manifestos” on the band’s website, which blended politics with fiction, journaling with journalism. (They were later collected into a book called At Last There Is Nothing Left to Say.) The manifestos were dense, but they were also in keeping with Good’s music, which, in a pre-9/11 world, had some eerily accurate things to say about increasingly hot topics––reality television, consumerism, terrorism––that would soon bubble over.

Matthew Good on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos

Today he continues to blog about politics and other, more intimate topics, comfortably and sometimes amusingly sharing details of his personal life with fans. In a CBC television interview three years ago, Good discussed a nervous breakdown he suffered following a brief stint in Europe. While staying at his parents’ house back in Canada, he had a manic episode, a reaction to a then-undiagnosed psychological disorder. He joked with host George Stroumboulopoulos that he knew something was wrong when, while in the shower, he asked his mom to get him a beer.

Everyone’s a critic, and Good told an interviewer in early 2001 that he shares his “diatribes,” as the interviewer called them, with fans because of a “need inside of me to make fun of people. And my need to make fun of myself.” But then he turned serious. Calling society “ridiculous,” he cited statistics about the large number of minority shootings in the Bronx as compared to the media’s weeks-long fixation on school shootings like Columbine. The Bronx kids, rarely reported on the news, “are just as important,” he said.

Today, the Good who “needs to make fun of people” has largely been replaced by Good the astute observer. On stage he is solemn but still dryly funny. In New York, announcing that it was his first Bowery Ballroom show in a decade, he quipped, “and I haven’t aged a day.” What followed was a brief exchange with an audience member over the song “Giant,” which begins with cheerleaders performing a cheer. “Oh yeah, I remember that, when the cheerleader came up on stage,” Good said. “People used to come dressed as all kinds of things. Now it’s all:”––he adopted a slightly softer voice––“‘This is my husband and our son, Paul.’”

Good’s musician-activist stage presence is reminiscent of Steve Earle, but his demeanor is not. Drinking Vitamin Water in between songs and often taking an extended break to play to his drummer, Good was for the most part serious and contained in New York. He didn’t perceive individual faces in the crowd; his look was continually brooding and far away. During the few moments he spent at the very front of the stage, next to the mic, strumming the guitar, Good seemed to be serenading the vague area between the venue’s balcony and the exit sign above the door. This is typical of musicians, but it was off-putting here: the venue was filled with rapt and longtime fans who yelled frequent encouragement like, “We love you, Matthew,” sang along to entire songs, and performed the cheerleaders’ part of “Giant” to draw the band out for an encore. But the set was short, and so was the encore. One explanation is that Good has been trying to run away from the mainstream, radio-ready music of his former band for years, and at the Ballroom, his behavior could be seen as apprehension; everyone was calling out for him to play “Apparitions,” unarguably the Matthew Good Band’s biggest hit. In the CBC interview he expressed his dread of fans “crowd-surfing to ‘Apparitions.’”

On his most recent album, Vancouver, a tribute to every strata of the troubled city, Good sings from the perspective of a soldier for the song “A Silent Army in the Trees,” shedding light on that clichéd but still all too real desire of young men to go into combat for idealized, video-game-inspired reasons. “At night it’s cold / We sit and freeze / Running red lights in our Humvees / Never thought I’d live to see see the day, I’d be / Afraid of little kids playing in the street.” But the chorus comes from Good himself, and his voice is somewhere between a hiss full of spit and a shout: “Well, this ain’t the woods behind the house / There ain’t nobody screaming out / For you to come inside and eat / You’re just holding your friends and watching them bleed.”

Good’s music started filtering beyond Canada with the advent of the Internet, but it is still lost on a large chunk of music listeners. While Good is renowned and successful in Canada, he is by no means rolling in money. (Recently, he put up a pay wall for portions of his website in an effort to create a new revenue stream and fund the site; a subscription costs $25 per year.) Genre-wise, Good’s music sits in an odd, rather unique place between arena rock, indie rock and emo. Comparisons can be made to R.E.M., U2, Our Lady Peace and Muse, but none of these captures a sound that seems wholly driven by Good’s desire to unleash his perfervid head on his listeners.

Good’s voice is dusky, palpably emotional. He can croon, stutter, whine, scream and half-speak, spewing out dark, DeLillo-like parodies of society, blazing affronts to political leaders and old flames, and refreshing, affectionate bon mots. His instrument of choice is the electric guitar, which is typically played with an echoic effect just a few notches down from the stratosphere of Daniel Lanois and bolstered with sometimes surprising and strange instrumental choices like bells, which create the entire chorus of the bitter and beautifully melodic “Pledge of Allegiance,” from the 2003 album Avalanche.

At the New York show he closed with a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” included on the 2007 album Hospital Music. His overly quiet and anemic interpretation was spot-on, if only because it oozed the half-hearted hope of someone who, like Johnston, has evidently been around the block both romantically and psychically. During this performance, it was as if he finally grasped the love down in front: when it was over, he clapped along with the audience and thanked them before ducking away from the lights.

Good wrote Hospital Music following an addiction to Ativan, which he overdosed on in 2006, the night of the manic episode at his parents’ house. Around the same time, he divorced from his wife. He voluntarily spent time in a psychiatric ward and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As ever open about these personal challenges and relieved with the diagnosis, Good continues to be as prolific in this new phase of his life as before. He’s been known to publish several lengthy blog posts a day and release an album every year or two. His political activism addresses issues like the Iraq War, Darfur, and the Vancouver Olympics, which Good felt was a costly mistake that would hinder rather than help his hometown’s poorest residents.

There is a physical toll on what Good has been through and a physical toll on his impressive output: at the Ballroom, he looked older than his 38 years. But that change may only be temporary, because what appeared world-weary or sluggish during a capella moments at the New York show revealed itself as simply road-bound fatigue between songs: this was the second to last night of a month-long U.S. tour, and Good seemed externally ready for it to end and internally teeming with what he had experienced while staying in a country that he vastly prefers to observe from a safe distance north of the border. Seeing it from his perspective, it’s hard to blame him. TC mark

Liz Colville

Liz is a writer based in New York City. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Pitchfork, New York

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