Album Review – Matt Woods’ ‘How To Survive’

Author: Leon Blair

​You know, for as much as some music artists like to lump bloggers as nothing more than haters who live in their mother’s basement, the reality is that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Heck, my world of music knowledge wouldn’t be nearly as expansive as it is had it not been from reading other blogs and discovering new artists for my listening pleasure.

2014 couldn’t have been a better time to start reading those blogs either. As I’m sure many or probably all of you know, 2014 was dominated by a ton by the independent scene. Led by a man named Sturgill Simpson, rightfully almost every blogger fell head over heels for him. The truth of the matter is however, there were a lot of independent country acts  just like Simpson who were beginning to break through and gain some serious traction. I’m talking about artists like Tami Neilson, Karen Jonas, The Secret Sisters, and another artist, Matt Woods.

For those who don’t know, Tennessee native Matt Woods gained some serious attention for himself when he released his single, “Deadman’s Blues” in 2013. He later gained even more attention in 2014 when he released his critically acclaimed album With Love From Brushy Mountain, an album that showed what an excellent songwriter Matt was. So when I heard that he was coming out with a new album in October called How To Survive, I was definitely anxious to hear it. What did I find?

Well folks, I’ll say this. How To Survive by Matt Woods is definitely one of the most emotionally complex records you will hear this year. It’s far from an easy listen, and in some ways that both helps and hurts this album. If anything however, it truly cements Matt Woods as one of the best songwriters we have in the underground Country and Americana genres right now.

The easiest part to start with any Matt Woods album is Matt Woods himself. Look, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room here. His rough vocal tone isn’t the easiest one to listen to all the time, but I can respect the hell out of this guy for the sheer emotive power he’s bringing to his work. The melancholic, starker tracks are evidence of this. Tracks such as “Fireflies”, “A Good Man”, and “No News” all work thanks to appropriate vocal tones that fit the mood of these songs. Matt Woods is definitely the type of artist that can sell those type of songs with the raw passion that they need.

Of course, on the other hand, you get tracks like “Little Heartache” and “Tonight (Don’t Let Me Down)” which don’t really play to those vocal strengths as well. The former plays to a more mid-tempo rock atmosphere while the latter relies on softer percussion and piano. I guess it’s just a matter of his voice not really blending in well with that type of instrumentation and production more so than anything else. But hey, on some level, judging Matt Woods, hell judging anyone as a vocalist is hard. No matter what, if the artist is able to evoke some real raw passion or at least try, that’s really what matters to me, and that’s exactly what Matt does here.

Moving further, I really have to say, 2016 must be the year of stark production. Anyone who’s read my latest review on Courtney Marie Andrews knows exactly what I’m talking about here too. I’m talking artists like Hayes Carll, Jack Ingram. BJ Barham, and Lori McKenna who have all favored more detailed, nuanced songwriting as opposed to any flashy, unneeded production. As you can guess by now, that’s what you get with How To Survive as well. Now, to be fair, it’s really not that far removed from With Love From Brushy Mountain. There’s plenty of steel guitar, organ, acoustic flourishes and especially fiddle sprinkled all throughout this album. It’s not so much bare as it is warm and intimate. There’s a ghostly swell to “Fireflies” that I really enjoyed and I also liked how “Love In The Nuclear Age” incorporated a waltz beat to sort of catch the listener off guard. It’s a great fit for the song too. “Lorraine” goes a tad bluesier in its sound while “The American Way” is one of the only real upbeat songs on this album. Again, it all relates back to a sense of intimacy and a “less is more” approach, meaning that it’s a very dark and complex album. Of course, that complexity really shines in the one element of this album that I’ve been dying to talk about since I got started.

If you’re wondering how the title of this album really connects at all to well, anything, How To Survive talks of survival relating to relationships. It’s a survival of love, an exploration of how to keep a relationship alive even when the odds are against you and your lover. Where the lyricism on With Love From Brushy Mountain was definitely more straightforward, the writing on this album isn’t quite as easy to digest. Honestly, you need to listen a few times to catch all of the little details encompassed here.

While this is an exploration on the survival of love, the opening track “The American Way” may have you thinking differently with its theme of trudging through hard work in order to live and lead a successful life, or even just make ends meet. If anything, it’s a survival in the sense that we all probably we think of and might have been expecting coming into this album and hearing that first track. Sure, while that song is definitely an outlier to this album in terms of the overall narrative theme on this album, I still find it to be one of the best thanks to some very tasteful instrumentation and for keeping an optimist, upbeat spirit to it. Beginning with “Fireflies” however, the story really begins to kick in. Before we move on, I think it’s important to say that the overall importance of the narrative on this album means that this is the type of album where many of the songs are essential to the project. They don’t work as well on their own so much as they do in the context of the album. Some may find that to be a sign of weakness but really, I can appreciate Matt actually caring about the concept of an album at all.

Anyway, back to our story, “Fireflies” sets the stage by describing all of the dreams and aspirations that this particular young couple has as they begin their journey of love together. Really, this song has been mentioned so many times by now because it’s easily one of the best songs here. “Bed Sheets”, “Love In The Nuclear Age”, and “Lorraine” all expose themes that deal with this couple’s love starting to test the waters. In other words, it’s a game of survival, and they need to work together to overcome the hardships. After all, love isn’t easy, and it comes with its cracks and crevices.

When we finally reach “To Tell The Truth”, we essentially reach the climax of this entire plot. The game of survival is over and the couple has lost. The male narrator expresses to his significant other that he doesn’t love her anymore, plain and simple. If anything, it’s a little too plain and simple if I’m being honest. The entire album prior to this song is entrenched in layers of nuanced songwriting, but with “To Tell The Truth”, we don’t get those same details. We don’t understand why our narrator stops loving his significant other. He just does. If anything, this climax could have gone a little deeper and even darker. The fact that it doesn’t isn’t meant to imply that the album is ruined, far from it. It just could have been even better in this particular aspect.

The two tracks that come after “To Tell The Truth” make sure this album ends on a strong note however. “Name To Drop” is a seemingly personal tale that sort of drifts away from the character that Matt Woods is portraying and instead just focuses on Matt himself. “No News” finds the male narrator regretting his action to let his lover go. Sure, it’s what you might expect, but it’s one of those moments where Matt Woods really sells the song as a vocalist and brings a needed unhappy ending to the plot. It’s a somber end, but at the very least it’s real.

There are also moments on this album that are really hard to decipher where they really fit into the narrative on this album. That’s not to insinuate that they feel like filler songs. On the contrary, they add a sense of mystery to the album that I really enjoyed. Take “Good Man” for example, a song that’s framed through the lens of a man as he witnesses a man he knew die, and recalling how he didn’t have a chance at surviving in this world. There’s a twist ending to this that really makes this harder to talk about any further however. I’ll say this though, the melancholy atmosphere of it really does make this one of the more interesting songs on this album. “Bound To Lose” sort of sets the stage with the honest confession of a man telling the listener that he’s far from perfect, and that he’s most likely bound to lose at whatever he does in his life. If anything, it foreshadows the eventual end to the relationship on this album. I think in terms of the sequencing on this album, this song could have come before “Fireflies”, but it’s good as is.

How To Survive by Matt Woods is definitely a good album. Even if the execution ultimately falters in places, the idea is good, and the album is mostly rooted in deep, complex songwriting that really shines on this album. I’ll say up front that this isn’t an easy listen, but it is overall a rewarding one. It takes a couple listens to find out everything that’s going on, but it does ultimately reveal itself. I like the intimate feel of this album, and even if I think some tracks like “Bed Sheets” or “Tonight( Don’t Let Me Down)” don’t really stand out all that much on this album, this is definitely an album worth your time all at the same time. Like I said, How To Survive really does cement Matt Woods as an excellent songwriter, and in a year where the lyrics have been the weakest element of a lot of country albums, I’m happy to hear an album that challenged me.

Best Songs: “Fireflies”, “Love In The Nuclear Age”, “No News”, “The American Way”, “A Good Man”
Worst Song: “Little Heartache”

(7/10)

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