Matt Maltese has always known his way around matters of the heart. His 2015 debut single was a complete heartbreaker: ‘Even If It’s A Lie (Demo’) was a solo piano ballad laced with misery and self-pity that could chill even the warmest of hearts. ‘In A New Bed’ was similarly heartbreaking and channeled songwriters who could devastate in as few words as possible – think Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and more.
For his debut album, ‘Bad Contestant’, things got a bit showbiz. Maltese began crooning about love in the time of the apocalypse (‘As The World Caves In’) and became a hapless dater on the song’s jaunty title track. The theatrics and tragic-comedy of Father John Misty won out on songs like ‘Misery’ and ‘Guilty’, while the orchestras swam around him on closing track ‘Mortals’.
We’re loathe to call a second album a ‘back-to-their-roots’ affair, but ‘Krystal’ finds Maltese back where he started: down in the dumps. It was written and recorded almost entirely alone in his bedroom in Elephant & Castle in South London (rising producer Vegyn lent his hand to Jupiter), like the same Chelsea Hotel that Cohen once dwelled in, but, like, punishingly sad.
‘Curl Up and Die’ is as bleak as the title suggests, with a downtrodden Maltese baring it all (“I worshipped the ground you walked on / I’d cut off my ear for you / I worshipped the towel you dried on / I’d kill all my friends for you”), while the relatively jaunty ‘Rom-Com Gone Wrong’ goes straight for the jugular: “Long baths, podcasts/I’m crying when I’m smashed”.
Everything on ‘Krystal’ is more subdued – a welcome prospect. Whereas ‘Bad Contestant’ was stuffed to the brim with ideas and instrumentation, the subdued lyricism is here matched by similarly sparse and restrained melodies. ‘Jupiter’ and the title track are so subdued and melancholy in their arrangement that any of the killer hooks that Maltese conjures are clung to like a lifeboat in an ocean of misery. ‘When You Wash Your Hair’ is a return to those solo piano ballads, but the shimmering ‘Tokyo’ is proof of a songwriter and producer who knows when to push things forward.
‘Krystal’ manages to be many things at once. It is often devastating, yet also darkly humorous – even in the most depressing circumstances, Maltese is able to recognise the comedy of it all. A step forward and a look back to where he came from, this is one of Britain’s most magical songwriters at his enchanting best.