Matthew Stevens’ last major release - Preverbal - was one of my favourite releases of 2017, featuring his vibrant, almost at times metronomic sound and archly contemporary compositions. In the interim, we’ve had a pandemic and a lockdown and, like many musicians, Stevens has used the hiatus to good effect.
What he came up with is a real contrast to what I’ve listened to before. It’s a solo acoustic album, something which - Stevens notes - is a “great way to develop a touch and a connection to an instrument.” Judging by this album, Stevens and his guitar became the best of bosom buddies.
This is a stripped down, unvarnished but nevertheless accomplished album produced on Stevens’ vintage Martin acoustic guitar. The motivation and catalyst for this album is interesting: a fall off his bike led to him breaking his right elbow, creating unexpected time to turn a book of sketched compositions into full tracks. This was guitar playing and composition as therapy; indeed, it was part of his physical recovery.
There are no signs, on opening track Ambler or second track Purpose of a Machine that the damaged arm did any lasting damage. Stevens has a terrific touch and every note on this album just sings out - thanks largely to two Neumann U89 mics, which are the sole technology used.
There are, for instance, no overdubs. It all comes out, as it were, in one go. And the results are the more impressive from knowing this. Every squeak of the strings on frets, every swift slide of the fingers up the fretboard, is captured perfectly.
This is one of those albums where headphones are an absolute must for listening to what is a great example of the art - and science - of music recording.
There is a melodic expansiveness to the tracks that makes listening easy and there’s stuff to both stir and calm the blood.
Lots of arpeggios come tumbling from the sound box, but there are also luscious chords aplenty that just hang in the air - such as on Buckets - and more subtle, hymn-like melodies to soothe the soul, such as on Foreign Ghosts, which is very much a track played at walking pace. One for the flaneur.
Listen to Foreign Ghosts here.
And boy, can Stevens pull off a spine-tingling harmonic chord when he wants to. These sound like you’re sitting in the studio right next to him, so vivid and intense are the sounds produced.
Listener will find nods here and there to jazz guitar greats like John McLoughlin and Pat Metheny and the album also offers some degree of temporal variety.
However, I had a feeling by the end of it of being aurally sated: a full album of just acoustic guitar music is quite a lot to consumer without any musical herbs and spices to leaven the bread.
Nevertheless, one man and his guitar can do an awful lot in the way of ambient pleasure. Less, here, is definitely more.