Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Lindsay Eanet writes of the gospel of Matthew E. White’s Big Inner, one of the year’s most joyous listening experiences
The first time I heard Big Inner from Virginia native and Randy Newman devotee Matthew E. White, I couldn’t actually register coherent thoughts about it. My brain could only communicate in a series of Homer Simpson-esque drooling noises, satisfied and “hnnngnghhhh”-ing.
Maybe it’s because of the advent calendar’s worth of sonic treats White leaves throughout the album and needing a few listens to savor them all—a saxophone honk, a nimble guitar lick, a line that resonates or a note from the backup choir hitting you in just the right way that chills make their way up and down your spine. Sound effects about here too: the haunting “Big Love” begins with what sounds like either a bird calling or a dog whimpering, and the sound is surprisingly wrenching and effective.
Maybe it’s because I fell in love this year and sometimes it’s hard, even when it’s your job, to separate your personal matters from a piece of work. Or maybe it’s because White is not just very good at playing and composing music, but he somehow taps in to a deeper pathological place than most pop songs about love and longing and faith and death and fear and love and all those things music often talks about and makes us feel even harder.
This was a year of pop records that were genuinely joyful affairs, songs that induced grins and sing-alongs and demanded participation. We celebrated Fiona Apple’s triumphant return and grieved at her losses. We felt different kinds of joy—the frantic, tweeting kind; the quieter, welling-up, grateful kind, when Frank Ocean told us a love story that happened to be about himself, and then that joy multiplied upon hearing his debut album. Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, with its fist-in-the-air riffs and “oh-ohs,” lived up to its name. Even the Top 40-iest of Top 40—“Call Me Maybe,” “Euphoria,” “I Love It” and anything off that new Ke$ha album—not to mention a band called fun., who has a few tracks that are legitimately so in that boisterous, barroom “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-off kind of way. There are many kinds of joy, some that dig deeper than others and some that induce dance parties with greater success, and the work of White and the other musicians of Spacebomb Records made something with a joy all their own.
That joy on Big Inner is palpable and palpitating, a heartbeat resonating brightly under the many functioning organs and systems. It’s an encapsulation of those less outwardly exuberant but heavily internalized moments of joy—that last glance around the table at Thanksgiving, the living room with the friends you’ve had for a decade, lying curled up against someone you love, suspended in the period between awake and asleep, between the initial exploration of each other and the comfortable stage of the relationship.
This is a record full of love songs that crescendo and layer and let you wrap yourself in the thick, dreamy instrumentation, but White lets his words, simple but nerve-hitting, get through. On opener “One of These Days,” he offers a devotional to the person he loves, asking if he can hold on in such an ephemeral world. “I want to lay next to you and never turn away.” It’s a love that’s worn in but never worn out, and it’s a pretty powerful declaration. The flipside happens on “Will You Love Me,” also quiet for the first two-thirds and then welling up to its fullest, more of a quiet pleading after his love has left. He offers promises of kissing, of song-singing, and as the horns rise with purpose and urgency, he declares: “Darkness can’t drive out darkness/only love can do that.” It’s simple, but it’s effective. In a year where there was so much talk about “authenticity” in popular music (Mumford and Sons, anyone?), this all certainly feels real.
On “Hot Toddies,” the Spacebomb Strings, one of the many skilled groups of in-house musicians White worked with on the record, play with White’s warm, whispery delivery and the results feel like coming in from the cold, especially with the horns and keys buildup at the end. The latter also brings us a line that sounds like it could have been by quite a few artists mentioned earlier: “The Lord made lemons/and the Lord made me / But the Devil and his demons / gave us sweet whiskey.” It’s silly, but it’s hard not to love a line like that. Booze and the God/Devil dichotomy have been favored musical tropes since we first figured out how to sing.
There’s another kind of massive love, of veneration, that appears on Big Inner. It’s a love of the South, of the musical traditions from where his sound springs and his musical peers—past, present and future. White, as previously mentioned, is a big fan of the great Southern yarn-builder that is Randy Newman, and on Big Inner you can hear traces of him, as well as Allen Toussaint and churches where the walls shake with the Holy Ghost and this is the sharpest sign of life within a several-mile radius. As Hometapes’ Sara Padgett Heathcott writes of White in the album’s liner notes, “Muddy Waters was just about gone. Jimmy Cliff had sung ‘Many Rivers to Cross.’ So had Harry Nilsson. White shared this common inheritance. He stitched his own flag out of it.”
White pays direct tribute to “Many Rivers to Cross” on “Will You Love Me,” where Cliff’s wail of “and this loneliness won’t leave me alone/it’s such a drag to be on your own” is pared down to a whisper, a shared secret. In extracting the line from Cliff’s song, White takes care of it, And like any good historian, White always cites his sources. As he writes, “It was my goal to wrap up all the places I have seen, behind and before, in forty-two minutes of what Jelly Roll Morton called ‘the peculiar mathematics and harmonies that was strange to all the world.’”
In his introduction to the album, White writes about his move to Richmond in 2003 and about what he learned from his fellow musicians, many of whom he salutes by name as part of the process. He describes them with great kindness and humanity and delight in the liner notes—Pinson Chanselle is “a man who breathes life and humanity into his instrument,” Cameron Ralston is an “explorer, adventurer and enlightened performer” and Phil Cook and Karl Blau are “stunningly unique musical minds that came to our village as brothers.” He loves and respects his collaborators, and it shows in what they contribute. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship and part of what makes this album such a great listen.
All of this converges at White’s finale, the rapturous, multi-movement “Brazos,” a mini-symphony steeped in many traditions, musical or otherwise. White binds the work together with a refrain from Jorge Ben’s “Brother,” itself a great little piece of flower-power Tropicália, and layers it over jazz-funeral horns and the exuberant members of the in-house Spacebomb Choir, clapping and thanking the good Lord for leading them across the Brazos. When spiritual writers and singers talk about making a “joyful noise,” as they often do, I imagine that “joyful noise” sounds like this — a love of place and the people in it and whatever guides will get you to that next step.
And maybe it’s because I fell in love this year, and after immersing myself in the joys of Big Inner and wanting to share them with literally everyone, I played in the car for the person I fell in love with, who didn’t quite see the appeal or fall hard for it, too, as maybe I’d hoped. It was raining and the Stevenson expressway was at a crawl. I quickly turned it off and put on the Mountain Goats’ new album instead. That was a lot better received. And I certainly don’t expect you to fall in love with Big Inner either. But I know, in a year full of weird, lovely, life-affirming songs, there had to have been something that lifted you up. And I hope you did, and that you played it loud and experienced the joy in sharing it with someone you like, too. That’s all.