Twenty five albums into a career that started auspiciously as a founding member of Fairport Convention back in 1968, Iain Matthews (sometimes known as Ian) quizzically says in his liner notes that “The Art of Obscurity will be my last solo album. It will however not be my final recording.”
Make of that what you will, this is his first American release in 15 years and it has been a decade since his previous album, so he’s had some time to polish and refine this material. It has paid off in a beautifully crafted, dozen tune set that combines Matthews’ lush voice with jazz/blues/folk inflected melodies and well-crafted, often personal lyrics.
It’s no surprise that threads of mortality weave through the album in tracks such as “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Pebbles in the Road” (a look back on his life which references his “borderline career”) and his lifelong love of “Music.” The sound is clean, clear and spare yet not sparse as he is accompanied by a second guitarist and keyboards, but no drums. Matthews has plenty to say and packs lots of words into each selection, detailing his lean early years (“we had holes in every pair of socks”) in the nearly seven minute, self-explanatory “When I Was a Boy.” He takes us back to the Garden of Eden to follow the politics of relationships “In Paradise,” and reflects about life changes in “Ghost Changes.”
Matthews’ ageless voice remains warm and inviting as he winds his way through this hour long set, creating a wistful yet never regretful mood. He molds it with a sure hand and sense of dexterity that comes from decades dedicated to creating classy under-the-radar albums that combined roots, pop, jazz and folk, most of which have found only a cult audience.
At this late stage, Iain Matthews is clearly creating songs he is passionate about, without commercial considerations. Call it a comeback, or a goodbye, but don’t let the self-effacing title of The Art of Obscurity deter you from discovering Iain Matthews, one of music’s lost treasures.