"This whole project has been blessed with many instances of good luck," says Matt Hales about Memory Man, the emotionally gripping new Aqualung album. Hales, of course, is the inhabiting spirit of Aqualung, a musical space that he creates with the help of his wife Kim Oliver, with whom he co-writes, and his brother Ben Hales, with whom he also co-writes and who plays guitar and bass. Trained on keyboards as a young child in England, Matt Hales sings Aqualung's songs in a voice that conveys equal parts vulnerability and a cool cerebral distance. In addition, he plays innumerable instruments, including, in his description, "piano, moogbass, broken synthesizer, glockenspiel, pretend orchestra, programming, harmonium, echo choir, electric guitar, Rhodes, stairwell drums, feedback, ghosts, sirens, vocoder, memoryman, noise."
Somehow, that rambling catalogue - which includes the echo device that provided the album with its title -- perfectly captures the teetering brilliance and shifting moods of Memory Man. This new collection follows up Strange and Beautiful, the 2004 album that brought Aqualung to the attention of Americans on the haunting power of songs like the title track and "Brighter Than Sunshine." Strange and Beautiful consists of songs selected from two earlier UK albums: Aqualung (2002) and Still Life (2003). When Strange and Beautiful became a hit, Hales found himself committed to a long schedule of touring, during which Aqualung would be expected to perform songs he had written years before. The effort to keep the music fresh and his imagination engaged led to the dizzying array of sounds on Memory Man.
"Having made two albums in the UK, it was never my intention to have a two-year hiatus where I played those songs again to new people," Hales explains. "I had expected to just go on and make another record. But the effect of that was very positive. I came to think of the whole process as a kind of workshop for trying out ideas for a new record - for thinking about what Aqualung is, and what it could become.
"So, if anyone had been dedicated or mad enough to come to every Aqualung show for the last two years in the States," he continues, "they would have heard six or more different presentations of the same material - different musicians, settings, approaches. So those two years of trial and error, of trying out new ideas on unsuspecting Americans, really helped accumulate ideas for this album. And for those people who were at one of the 'error' evenings, I do apologize!"
Like Strange and Beautiful, Memory Man consists of moments of exquisite melodic beauty and lush texture ("Pressure Suit," the album's first single, for example) that are leavened by a lingering sense of unease, a suggestion that things may not be as beautiful or orderly as they might appear on the surface ("Black Hole"). But on the new album, those two moods are pushed to further extremes. The blast of electric guitar that opens "Cinderella," the album's first track, is hardly typical Aqualung fare, and similarly jarring effects populate the eleven new songs.
That's because the journey that led to Memory Man found Hales negotiating two sets of conflicting emotions. The first was a keen sense of dread about the fate of the world - violence and wars, a deteriorating environment -- which found expression in his plans for a concept album driven by an apocalyptic lost-in-space narrative. That idea was scuttled, but images of fear, isolation and helplessness permeate such songs are "Vapour Trail" and "Garden of Love," which features a dramatic guest vocal by Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile.
The other feelings that came to inform Memory Man are the profound joy and hope Hales experienced around the birth of his son, Kofi, in May 2004. "It was like me being born again," he says. "My life is now in two halves - my life before my son was born, and my life since he arrived. It's there in every single cell of this album." Memory Man plots all the points on the emotional map between those poles of dread and deliverance, and merges them in compelling ways. "This is a story 'bout the three of us," Hales sings on "Broken Bones," the album's closing number. "Down by the water and the tide keeps rising/This world is burning and I'm terrified/I need a little more time with you."
"There was a kind of claustrophobia to the space concept," Hales says at this point. "It was only half the story, half the truth of what I feel. As much as I feel terrified and useless, I also feel hopeful and full of wonder. You have to have both of those things."
Hales has described his ambition with Aqualung as making "grownup music. To write songs about this curious world that would be truthful, articulate, candid, poetic, sometimes beautiful and occasionally a bit strange." With Memory Man, he has succeeded in all those regards - a goal achieved, in part, because of the familial nature of his working relationships with his wife and brother.
"Fundamentally, it's working with people who are quite comfortable with me naked - literally but also metaphorically," he says, laughing. "You have to have that intimacy if you're trying to make songs that are candid. With my wife and my brother, we can talk about anything. That contributes to the emotional candor - there's a heart and a center to it that's truthful and recognizably real.
"The risks are," he continues, "that, if a song's going badly, so's your life. That's quite a price to pay! You go head to head over a line, a syllable, a note, and it's brutal when it needs to be. We've just accepted that when we work together it's going to be messy, and it's possible that there might be some blood spilled. But it's worth it. We're still talking to each other, so I guess it's okay!"
Which brings Aqualung once again to the point to having a new set of songs to take out on the road. "This is our first new album in a while, and I suppose over the next year and a half, we're going to find ourselves going around the world figuring out how to play these songs for people," Hales says. "I'm looking forward to it."
- - Anthony DeCurtis