Matthew Barber’s Big Romance
Big Romance, the latest offering from Toronto singer-songwriter Matthew Barber, can in one sense be understood as an intimate exploration of the intertwined themes of emptiness and fulfillment, death and vitality, science and myth and right and wrong, filtered through the personal lens of a narrator still searching for what it is to be a man in the 21st century. It can equally be understood as a varied collection of songs that, while broadly indebted to the tradition of what happened when folk music got a backbeat and rock rolled out of the sock-hop and into the concert halls, also represent the latest layer in a singular sound that Barber has been refining over 7 full-length albums. If you really want to break it down, this record has soul-searching ballads, foot-stomping rockers, some groovy mid-tempo tunes and hooks-a-plenty. And it was all guided by the steady ears of producer Gary Louris of The Jayhawks.
“I’ve been a lifelong fan of Gary’s music with The Jayhawks and Golden Smog as well as his production work with (Outside Music label-mates) The Sadies,” says Barber, adding that “it was a thrill to get to make a record with one of my contemporary musical heroes.” Louris came up to Toronto and the record was cut in mid-January at Revolution Recording as well as at Greg Keelor’s farmhouse studio, which he was kind enough to make available while on tour with Blue Rodeo.
The album opens gently with the anthropomorphic naturalist-mythology of “Hold Me,” then settles into a Harvest-esque groove with “Magnet Eyes,” a paen to the fleeting moment of connection with a stranger. The title track “Big Romance” is just that, recounting a European Odyssey, part fact and part fantasy with a shot of irony and a chaser of humility. “On The 505” offers a personal take on a real tragedy that took place on the streetcar line that runs along Toronto’s Dundas St. steps away from Barber’s house. “Lose Your Love” is the anchor in the middle of the record, a floor-tom rumbling rave-up about a woman who must reclaim her life from a doomed relationship. “Magic Greg” also deals with loss, but in the form of an ode to a departed friend. “Dance of the Honey Bee” frolics in a garden of Crazy Horse riffs, apiology and metaphor. “When She Comes Over Me” and “If Our Timing Is True” envelop the listener in a wine-soaked warm bath of analog tape and lovelorn balladry. “Still Beating” is the dot on the existential question mark at the end of the record.
Drummer Dean Stone reunited with former Apostle of Hustle band-mate and long-time Barber bassist Julian Brown to make up the rhythm section, marking the first time the two have backed Barber on record since his breakout 2003 debut Means and Ends. Big Romance also features gorgeous piano and organ work from Jesse O’Brien and Steve O’Connor, exquisite backing vocals from Michelle McAdorey, guitar and vocals from Louris and a guest appearance by Barber’s sister Jill.
“Big Romance is a wide-reaching idea on this record,” says Barber, a lyricist not shy to play a romantic card. “Some songs are about love, but others deal with death, despair and that which lurks in the shadows that are cast when the fires of passion burn bright. With this title I want to embrace the idea that while it can be artistically-liberating to give in to romance completely, one must also be able to step outside with a wink and recognize that sometimes romance goes no deeper than the stuff of a good song.”