Over the past two years, we’ve written a lot about Matt Christensen. Between his solo material and his role as singer/guitarist in Zelienople, the Chicago songwriter has constantly remained at the summit of new music.
Christensen is one of those got-to artists firmly entrenched in the consciousness. At work, on a walk, cooking tea, the mundane things in one’s everyday routine. Like muscle memory. Not having his beautiful soundscapes occupy a normal day can make it feel empty. An intangible companion that you cannot live without, and although that may seem slightly dramatic, this is the kind of effect Christensen’s work has. A hypnotic spell that draws you in.
Where trying to find music that truly grips you, the last three months has been the toughest over the past two years. This is where Christensen’s music has been safety net. A safe bet. An artist immune from releasing lacklustre material, whether it be through his array of experimental albums or song-based journeys.
So this month, instead of our normal Label Watch feature, think of this as a Matt Christensen Watch. Below we have handpicked some of Christensen’s finest works so far this year. No doubt there will be more, of course, because, well… that’s what he does. An artist forever in the realms of creation.
This Is How I Unravel
Following Don’t Fall Down Your Own Well, in many ways This Is How I Unravel feels intrinsically linked to its predecessor.
With an elusive tape hiss that provides a strong thread throughout This Is How I Unravel, Christensen provides an unmatched homespun warmth with a succession of tracks that you can’t help but returning to.
As always there are highlights aplenty. The emotional intensity of the title track and Hustle No More, the ambient folk lustre of Like A Tiger and I Had So Many Sides That Were Never Even There, and the ruthless honesty of How Long.
For those not yet acquainted with the world of Matt Christensen, This Is How I Unravel is as good a place to start as any.
Alongside Zelienople bandmate Brian Harding, the pair strike up a series of songs that are like a perfect come down after spending a weekend on a Neil Young binge.
With a rust-belt open-road vibe, this is a record designed for solitude. With the dream-pop reverie of Rumble and later with the prairie lullaby of Did I Lean Too Hard, both have the ability transport you to the past, making your mind wander and reflect on the years gone by.
Townie Songs is one of those rustic releases that Christensen has comes up with. The kind of album that provides a lovely foil to some of his more essential releases, and alongside Harding, Christensen has made something that fills the void when finding ourselves in that contemplative disposition.
Drawing in more guests, namely guitarist Marcier Shapiro and Arrow Mullins on synth, Show Up sees Christensen shift the needle slightly.
Shaprio’s plucky guitar is evident on the beautiful opener and one of Christensen’s finest songs so far this year in Egg Harbour. Meanwhile, Desert Car Evoking provides the kind of backwater imagery of the great modern day novelists such as Willy Vlautin and Richard Ford.
“In this coma is where I’d like to live” sings Christensen on Baby Bluebird. It’s not the first time Christensen dabbles in the realms of existentialism; many would say this aspect of his songwriting is indeed his hallmark card.
While Mr Skeleton and Lioness are dream-pop tailor-made for high altitudes, Show Up isn’t the most seamless record of Christensen’s releases, but with the assistance of Shaprio in particular, he finds a wistful range that sets a part this release from his others this year.
Here, we find Christensen leaning into realms of folk. With the reverb peddles stashed away, the songs that comprise Tangled possess more of a woodsy fineness.
The damaged protagonists of the bookend tracks, Faults and Mine & Yours, sum up Tangled; however that’s not to say one should swerve what’s in between. The cinematic intensity of Trapped Inside boasts all the finest qualities of Christensen’s songwriting and is hands down the shining beacon among these tracks.
Along with Show Up, and later with Horror in the Light, Tangled is an album that requires a little bit more patience. Here Christensen really explores the inner grains of sound, and once acclimatised to the subtle intricacies, you’ll feel right at home.
Horror in the Light
On Horror in the Light Christensen reconvenes with the kind of luscious reverb and spatial textures that have served him so well over the past two decades.
The floating majesty of My Angel and Tide These Days may take a few listens to make their impact, but make no mistake, while Horror in the Light might be a slow burn, with a closing track like the hushed splendour of How Can I Fix This Girl, it also has the potential to be the sleeper of Christensen’s 2022 output.
“Paddle along to the ether,” sings Christensen on Tides These Days, and it’s an accurate summation of Horror in the Light. An album where Christensen settles into his natural habitat, the results speak for themselves.
“Just heaven with you,” whispers Christensen on the opening cut to Pittsfield, Pittsfield USA. With so many albums released in a calendar year, including Christensen’s fine array of instrumental records, some may see it as difficult to differentiate between so much material. However, when music speaks to you the way Christensen’s does, it’s quite easy.
And Pittsfield certainly breaks through the incredibly high ceiling Christensen has set over the years. With a slowcore hush and beautiful washes of reverb, if Christensen releases anything as good as Pittsfield in the remaining months of 2022, then we’ll be in for some treat.
The haunting darkness of I Can Go to Church sees Christensen drawing from familiar themes, while the achingly beautiful She Says would even bring a tear to the eye of the most emotionally bankrupt soul. Similarly with the lay-it-on-line magnificence of I Felt Everything With You and the defiant Let’s Get It On.
Then there’s I Will Call You Columbine (“Heaven lies once in a while/ My eyes never lie”). It’s probably Christensen’s finest song this year. No explanation, just listen.
Over his discography which now boasts over 150 releases, Pittsfield is up there with his finest. It’s also one of the finest records released this year.
The Inland Empire Sea
Following the release of his experimental two-track LP, Ascension, Christensen gets back to basics with The Inland Empire Sea.
More streamlined than most of his 2022 releases, The Inland Empire Sea is quiet. So quiet you can almost hear the blood running through your veins. While it perhaps doesn’t reach the heights of Pittsfield (not much will), it provides a lovely foil with songs that are strikingly tender (Big Data, This Burning Cellphone Tower, Simple & Nice, All the Time), containing the stock-standard emotional intensity that is one of Christensen’s most potent weapons.
And speaking of, Criminal History sees Christensen get intimately street-level, guiding us through a nostalgic journey of a past riddled with trouble and living on the fault lines.
Ending with Wake Up At 3, a song that could have been included on Pittsfield, in truth it really makes no difference. Given Christensen’s deluge of new releases and the high-watermark quality of them, Waking Up At 3 draws the curtain on yet another fine release.
Taking its cues from 2021’s Red Trails, Christensen stretches things out on Softer Skills, dabbling in the art of longform.
“Watch me rinse and repeat/ Watch me snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” he sings on the opening 13 minute stanza, The Weather Vane/Bask.
Mixing together elements from his instrumental-based endeavours, Prayers for Women and Mantras, Softer Skills emits a Slowdive Pygmalion-era vibe (There Are Babies Under Every Rock).
Like the aforementioned Red Trails, Softer Skills feels like one big song. Blissful, seamless, and a pretty accurate summation of Christensen’s work so far in 2022. Again, despite shifting away from the more conventional aspects of his work, this also wouldn’t be a bad place to start for those new to Christensen’s work.
With his latest song-based LP, Sea Of, Christensen unleashes something that could be considered as a grower out of the bunch. Mixing atmospheric synth and chiming nightscapes, Sea Of sees Christensen weave spine-tingling melodies with luscious arrangements.
From I Was Born To (“Everything goes grey/In a good way”, the cinematic intensity of 5 to 1 and Come Again On, the floating-in-the-ether of Now I Did It There to the gorgeous reach-to-heavens vibe of the title track, again Christensen melds together many of the ideas of his past releases this year.
Revelling in simplicity and seamlessness, Sea Of brims with the kind of allure that stacks up alongside some of Christensen’s finest work in 2022. It’s further evidence that he can do no wrong – like we needed any more proof of that.
For more, visit Matt Christensen’s Bandcamp page.