Matt Maltese – ‘Bad Contestant’ review

The schmaltz never halts on this superb debut from the 21-year-old Reading crooner

Last month, NME attempted to answer a very important question: what exactly is schmaltzcore? The answer, it transpired, is the sound being championed by a young brigade of sensitive pop piano wizards who are crafting soul-bearing jazz ballads for a new generation. And, while it’s been responsible for the emergence of Tom Misch and Rex, Orange County, Matt Maltese might just prove to be the scene’s greatest offering to date.

On ‘Bad Contestant’, the 21-year-old creates a stunning debut that is packed with wisdom beyond his tentative years, and lyrics filled with scathing humour at every turn. From the opening bars of ‘Greatest Comedian’, Maltese’s staggering abilities as a lyricist shine through as he pulls in surreal imagery to create the unlikeliest of backhanded compliments: “You’re the highest quality hardwood door / You’re the final wartime piece of bread.”

Crucially, though, it just so happens to also be one of 2018’s funkiest jams. Maltese knows precisely when to tone down the aforementioned schmaltz in favour of a toe-tapper. It’s a similar story on titular track ‘Bad Contestant’, which provides Maltese with a soul-bearing, confessional moment as he assumes the guise of a luckless game show hopeful. The whole thing is so deliciously retro that you’re half expecting the ghost of Bruce Forsyth to show up.

It an impressive and consistently varied effort. While there are jaunty jams aplenty, ‘Misery’ sounds like the big hit that Pink Floyd never wrote, with Maltese’s distinctive croon backed by whirring guitars for a darkened reflection on human mortality. In fact, the latter half of the album is almost entirely masked in darkness – and it’s done with a sense of black humour and sardonic jabs that are fast becoming Maltese’s trademark. ‘Strange Time’, meanwhile, might be one of Maltese’s most world-weary efforts, but it’s got an haunting piano-led quality that wouldn’t sound out of place at the beginning of a Bond film.

The record undoubtedly reaches a very strange apex with ‘When The World Caves In’, an epic ballad that provides the unlikely representation of Donald Trump and Theresa May shacking up as the world faces certain nuclear oblivion. It’s a image that will be eternally burnt into your cerebrum, but one that’s also totally in keeping with the sardonic humour that’s constantly weaved through the record.

At times joyful and at others surprisingly moving, ‘Bad Contestant’ sets Maltese on the start of a path that marks him out as a true prodigious talent.  This is the voice of a true original. The future, it seems, is schmaltz.