Album Review: Matt Jewett Live

Acoustic punk singer-songwriter Matt Jewett takes some of the edge off with a live album that doubles as a pivotal hard reset.

Few artists have thrown themselves into stormy, bloodletting songcraft as brazenly as Matt Jewett. With heaps of messy stories both haunted by past relationships and riddled with substance use, his repertoire thrives on a teetering balance of profound clarity and hopeless incoherency. His performances often breathe sour flames of emotional heartburn, scorching the microphone as they barrel from his soul. Despite his tattered narratives, though, Jewett channels his short fuses into sharp, quality musicianship, proving that an articulate voice and a clean acoustic guitar can sound just as powerful and fiery as a distortion laden performance, if not more so.

As late 2010s emo-punk revivalism surges towards its inevitable peak, it would seem an opportune time for one of Oklahoma City’s modern daddies of raw, angst-heavy songwriting to make a comeback. Save for one recent benefit concert, it’s been a while since Jewett fronted the eponymous Shut Up Matt Jewett, his bare-bones punk band that never quite managed to put together a proper follow-up to 2014’s defining EP, I Wish I Liked You. He cites burnout as a major reason for the hiatus, a condition from which he only recently recovered. Although his new solo record does include songs from that era, including a couple from the EP, it’s not exactly the Shut Up Matt Jewett soft reboot that some might expect.

Matt Jewett Live, released last week through Robot Saves City, is 10 tracks of live material culled from a 2019 solo performance at one of OKC’s best-kept secret nooks, 51st St. Speakeasy‘s Scotch Room. With the casual chatter of a house show and the professionalism of a venue, Matt Jewett Live captures the intimacy that can arise when a smallish audience and a smallish space zero in together on a single performer.

This approach is the right fit for this album, which hears Jewett on guitar with no backing players. His vocals are less graveled than his full band recordings, perhaps because he no longer senses the need to project over the instrumentation. He retains immense personality, however, in his choice of tonal inflections. More than ever, his performance style opens a direct passage to his songwriting core. That is the epitome of what it means to be a singer-songwriter, after all. It’s good to be reminded of that now and again.

Highlights include opener “Five Hundred Square Feet”, which boasts an inspired refrain that says, “This song, just like me, is destined to reside as a B-side, forever, living in obscurity.” Where that cut is as musically upbeat as the record gets, others like “It Always Ends the Same” convey a downtrodden sulk with a lower vocal register and slower tempo on lines such as “I’m not as angry as I used to be / You could call it maturation, but I think it’s defeat.” Some songs are the storm, while others are the survey of its aftermath.

On “Bad Math”, one of multiple melodic numbers that Jewett may just have easily written to himself as to someone else, concludes with a candid aside to the audience. He claims to have screwed up a chord, but even on close re-listen, the chord in question sounds like a purposeful stylistic accent, not a mistake. The only real flub on this is the soundcheck from the downstairs stage interrupting “Equal Parts”. Smartly, the album includes this spontaneous bit, reinforcing both Matt Jewett Live‘s of-the-moment nature and the fallible themes in Jewett’s lyricism.
Closer track “A Younger Man’s Game” finds the singer-songwriter reflecting on his recent past with perhaps less angst than fans have come to associate with him. Given that this is one of Jewett’s more recently written songs, it signals an ongoing shift in style. The track discusses the tide of seasons, even while acknowledging that some things never change, noting that everything is a matter of perspective.

Those demanding of the gut-wrenching artistic fireworks that take a toll on an artist’s mental health may not be as satisfied with this subdued, crestfallen 2020 Matt Jewett, but this is a thoughtless, fruitless stance that probably didn’t help Jewett’s creative rut in the first place. No matter. The newer songs are some of the best on Matt Jewett Live, and openminded listeners will recognize that.

There’s a brief, poignant, and emblematic moment that occurs at the start of “A Younger Man’s Game”. The track picks up after the aforementioned soundcheck is quieted, apparently one that spoiled his first take of the song. He asks the audience, “Should I quit while I’m ahead, or should I do that song again?”

The crowd encourages him to keep going.

Matt Jewett Live is available now on Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to Sisu Youth Services, a homeless youth shelter in Oklahoma City. It is the first non-comedy, original music album that Robot Saves City has ever released.

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aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.

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