Matt the Electrician crafts sharp narratives with equal measures heart and home. Evidence: It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell. The longtime Austin resident’s excellent new album showcases a seasoned songwriter in top form. “Look out the window at the road rushing by,” he sings on the stunning “Muddy Waters.” “The shatterproof glass breaking up in your eyes/Your own private movie when things fall apart/Everyone’s trying to break your heart.” Details whittled from real experience frequently fortify his songs.
“Muddy Waters” backs the claim. Matt dreamed up the song as he drove around Austin with his 12-year-old daughter after a big storm. Water under the Lamar Bridge was brown and green, colors he thought an interesting mix. “Yeah, it’s dirty, Dad,” his daughter said, unimpressed. “Muddy Waters” deftly charts our decidedly varying perceptions at different times in our lives and with age comes an acute awareness that everything moves in cycles. Listen closely. Lessons quickly emerge within the song’s ebb and flow.
Like “Muddy Waters,” Matt’s songs typically mirror his family life and the complexities of living as a touring musician and father, often far from home, on the move and unable to be in touch. Accordingly, It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell offers several uniquely personal and autobiographical portraits brimming with universal truths.
High watermarks deliver stark snapshots as engaging as enlivening. Sparse landscapes guide the journey. In fact, Matt has wanted to make this stripped-down record, a collection entirely with just guitar and vocals, for some time. These songs simply fit the mood. In some cases, they’re admittedly quieter by nature and comfortable to play without accompaniment and longtime fans certainly will celebrate the evolution. While Matt has a local band, he tours internationally as a solo act and the most common question he hears on the road: “Hey, which record sounds like what you just did?” Well, It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell finally offers the answer.
Revisit the lush Accidental Thief (2011) for comparison. It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell shines with simplicity. The new album effortlessly backs deep-browed story songs with an intangible everyman appeal, a characteristic folks quickly gravitate toward. “As a songwriter, Matt is able to balance honesty and sincere sentiments with really engaging story telling and humor,” says instrumentalist and frequent collaborator Scrappy Jud Newcomb. “It’s not always easy to pick out his influences, which I think is fantastic.”
In fact, Matt cites one legendary songwriter with lighting his creative fires as he wrote It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell: Townes Van Zandt. While he loves being immersed in Texas songwriters who tell a straightforward story, Matt’s most drawn to the Lone Star State’s most elegant lyricist, a songwriter he only discovered upon moving to Austin in 1996. Like the boundless poetry moving forward Van Zandt’s writing, Matt focuses these new songs more directly on the poetry of his words, finding ways to leave all the right lyrical holes while coloring in details important enough to spark imaginations.
“Matt’s greatest asset as a songwriter is his natural ability to tell a story,” says Austin-based singer Seela Misra. “The world in his retelling is brutally honest, tender and hilarious at the same, a comforting combination. Equally comforting is his singing voice. You believe what he tells you.”
Key words: Honest, tender, hilarious. Yes, Matt’s most thoughtful moments mirror Van Zandt. They shadow Guy Clark. Haunt every great Texas storyteller with an eye for triumph and truth. Still, every lyrical twist and turn maintains his own unique style and substance. “I think Matt will be an influence on a lot of songwriters in the future,” Newcomb says. “What really stands out about Matt as a performer is he makes every crowd his own. By the end of his set, no matter who they came to see, the audience will be Matt the Electrician fans.”