Syd Matters

You have to imagine Syd Matters alone in his flat with the dawn fingering at his window. He hasn’t talked to anyone for a week and the hours and days are gradually slipping by him. One by one, childhood memories come back, sometimes they clash. He composes crystal-clear tunes on his guitar, the din of the world is far away and he listens to the music inside of him. And when day comes, the song is suddenly there. Syd experiences a strange sense of joy, feels incredibly present and at the same time as if he was floating. These are his “Ghost Days”, as he puts it. They provide the title of his third album – which also happens to be his most beautiful one to date.

It’s not that Syd’s been idle up until now. The Parisian Jonathan Morali, alias Syd Matters, came from nowhere to make a big impression at the first Les Inrockuptibles QED awards – he was only 22 at the time – and his two spellbinding albums have since won over both critics and the general public. The first was “A Whisper And A Sigh” (2003), riding on the back of the space-folk hit “Black & White Eyes”. Then came “Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles” (2005) which was enhanced by large-scale, enthralling, Pink Floyd-style concerts – it’s worth mentioning that Jonathan had by this time surrounded himself with four musicians in his own vein, Olivier, Jean-Yves, Clément and Rémi, who bring a new dimension to Syd Matters. He was also much talked about this autumn with the release of the film “Heartbeat Detector”, for which he composed the soundtrack. He now says that this was a decisive experience for him, one that helped him grow.

“I learnt a lot from working with the director Nicolas Klotz,” he says. “I saw a man who never allows himself to be overwhelmed by the thousand and one things that come up when you’re producing a film, but keeps focused on what’s essential - his message. This sense of total commitment was my guide when I was making “Ghost Days” because you’re obviously assailed by questions like ‘is my record going to sell? Are people happy working with me?’ And the danger is that it distracts you from what’s essential.”

Stay focused. Whatever you do, don’t try to seduce people. Stick to your own truth. This unusual attitude is what makes “Ghost Days” an important and magnificent album. It’s an album that pulls you in irresistibly and, each time you listen to it, it reveals a little more of its subtle depths – a true “grower” – like most of Syd Matters’ favourite albums that include Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ or Joanna Newsom’s ‘Ys’.

But so what? It’s obviously fun to pick up on the references scattered throughout “Ghost Days”. There’s “shame on you crazy jackson” (‘I’ll Jackson’) which is a nice nod to Pink Floyd. Or ‘Louise’ which sounds like a sequel to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’. Or Jonathan’s lazy, soft, passionate and magnetic voice that unfailingly invites comparisons with Thom Yorke. Or then again the subtle arpeggios of “Big Moon” that are a sweet reminder of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”. But this game quickly turns out to be pointless, because Syd is unequivocally his own man. Although he has obviously listened to a lot of music, he has actually digested even more and made it his own. Since the very beginning, what has been so astonishing is the artistry of his songwriting, his airy, dreamlike, dense style, and his unique touch that you recognise immediately.

However, the most impressive thing is to see how Syd Matters has evolved from one record to the next, becoming simpler and more spontaneous. “Between the “Obstacles” tour with the band and the moment I composed the soundtrack, I learnt to let go, to open myself up to others and not have to control everything,” Jonathan confirms. “For the very first time, I came to the studio without having decided on every single detail of the songs. I left it up to the group. What we wanted was to make the recording sound as live as possible, with a bit of an unfinished feel to it, even if that meant leaving in some of the mistakes.”

This concern for authenticity is also the hallmark of the tracks on “Ghost Days”. Gone are the American fantasies of ‘Black & White Eyes’ or ‘To All Of You’ (‘American Girls In The Movies’) on ‘Obstacles’.

Here the fantasies and the movie screens have disappeared, leaving the young man face to face with himself. So what is “Ghost Days“message? “I wrote this album in exile, alone in my flat, completely disconnected from the world outside. And I asked myself: what goes on when there’s nothing going on? I wanted to talk about everyday life, about the middle classes with no story of their own.” Because: “The cliché is that to have something worthwhile to say, you have to have experienced something. OK, but even when there’s nothing going on in your life, that’s also worth talking about.”

And there’s more to come: retreating into the hollow of his ghost days also made Syd take stock of where he’d got to before he changed. “When you write so many songs about nostalgia, you end up asking yourself whether the past was really that good after all? And you realise that it wasn’t, it was exactly the same as now. And that made me want to make sure that things would be better in the future.”

Putting it differently, we could say Syd Matters belongs to a European middle class in decline, and this would explain why he is so melancholic. But he is also part of an active minority that has chosen to distance itself from society’s greedy, empty show. A minority that prefers the desire of abstinence to forced orgasms. And through this he creates the possibility of an island, to quote Houellebecq, but in this case an island that broadcasts to and is heard by the melancholically inclined and those who are searching for things of beauty. This is Syd Matters’ path to a bright future – and it starts right here.

Philippe Nassif

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