Seriously. THIS IS NOT A HAPPY ALBUM. And it’s not meant to be. For starters, it’s called “The Broken Man” and the album art appears to show some tormented souls in shackles against a blood-red background.
To be clear: this album is DARK.
But dark can be quite interesting, and especially in the realm of music, it tends to produce some magnificently inspired content. That’s exactly what Matt Elliott gives us with his new release, an album that explores the depths of despair within a man caught in some very hopeless circumstances.
“Broken” is only seven tracks long, but three of them are marathons, and it’s a bit of an exhausting ride regardless. It takes little time in getting started; the first track “Oh How We Fell” adopts a flamenco-inspired jaunt that alternates tempos to the tune of Matt’s guitar and defeated baritone voice, subtle brass and string sections, church bells, and some wailing ladies. By the end of the song, the strings themselves are practically wailing over a multitude of sad voices. The mix produces a unique sound that can only be described as “despair-drenched spooky ancient folk,” a very specific genre that Matt no doubt has the market cornered on. The remaining six tracks weave in and out of layered complexity; some prefer to adopt a stripped-down format that lets the guitar and downtrodden vocals do most of the work, while others add other instrumentation or special vocal elements, including some whistling, howling, choral “ahs”, and soft, tired breathing.
Lyrically, it’s not much cheerier; make no mistake, this is an album chronicling a descent into deep despair with no end in sight. Matt establishes the mood early for this “endless broken dark soliloquy” and laments “this is how it feels to be alone” over and over again in perhaps the album’s most powerful track, “Dust Flesh and Bones”. As “Broken” progresses, it becomes more and more apparent there will be no happy resolution for our character. He seems to be very much saturated in despair and prefers to remain so for the time, a sentiment supported by the penultimate and final tracks, “This Is for” and “The Pain That’s Yet to Come”. The church bells that periodically appear throughout the album give the impression that our man has been holed up inside a dark room looking out over the city for a very long time, just letting time pass, very alone save for some ghostly figures who occasionally drop by to join him in his mourning.
If our character is no less depressed at the end of the album than at the beginning, he at least seems to possess some self awareness about his plight, making it easier for the listener to sympathize with him instead of merely looking upon him with pity. “If it doesn’t kill you then it makes you strong,” Matt mutters in “This Is for,” although sounding as though he hardly believes it himself. The fifth track of the album is called “If Anyone Tells Me ‘It’s Better to Have Loved and Lost Than to Never Have Loved at All’ I Will Stab Them in the Face,” a title that puts anything by Panic! At the Disco circa 2005 to shame and provides some marginal context for the album’s dark tone. If you should somehow miss the specific gist of the lyrics for being lost in the eerie instrumentation, the track listing should shout boldly that “Broken” is a defeated anthem of love lost that requests our empathy.
As a team of gut-wrenching electric guitars join together to escort the listener through the final track, they remind that the end of the album is not the end of a journey; no, there is no catharsis or reprieve here. The album’s character most likely continues to mourn well past the final notes of “The Pain That’s Yet to Come,” but he would be glad to have you support him by lending an ear during his troubled times.
(1) “Oh How We Fell”
(3) “Dust Flesh and Bones”
(5) “If Anyone Tells Me ‘It’s Better to Have Loved and Lost Than to Never Have Loved at All’ I Will Stab Them in the Face”
(6) “This Is for”