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Matt Nathanson – Some Mad Hope

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  1. Melody Bot

    Your friendly little forum bot. Staff Member

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    Few albums sound more like growing up to me than Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope. Last year, for my 26th birthday, I wrote a blog post where I chose one defining song from every year I’ve spent on the planet. “Car Crash,” the opening track from Some Mad Hope, was my pick for 2007. For me, that song—and this record in general—marked the end of youthful innocence and the beginning of something a little more complex and a little less black and white. It’s tough to imagine a better record for that moment in life than Some Mad Hope, which effortlessly pairs pop hooks and anthemic arrangements with emotionally weighty lyrical work. What is tough to process is the fact that this record—the one that marked the start of my journey from youth to adulthood—is now 10 years in the rearview.

    Some Mad Hope would prove to be Matt Nathanson’s breakthrough, but it wasn’t his first record. On the contrary, in Nathanson’s catalog, Some Mad Hope holds the status of being the sixth LP. He’d moved the needle slightly in the past. His cover of the James hit “Laid” opened American Wedding, the final film in the initial American Pie trilogy, and his fifth album, 2003’s Beneath the Fireworks (produced by future Springsteen collaborator Ron Aniello) spawned reasonably well-known tracks like “I Saw” and “Curve of the Earth.” But until this record, Nathanson tended to be known as an artist who put on a fantastic live show, but could never quite translate the energy and fun of his concerts into compelling studio records.

    To be fair, it’s tough to convey what Nathanson does live on an album. Practically a court jester in a live setting, Nathanson cracks jokes during song breaks and develops a quirky, informal banter with every crowd he meets. It’s a rare talent—one captured perfectly on his 2006 live album At the Point—but one that really doesn’t do you much good in the studio. To truly make an album worthy of his potential, Nathanson had to do two things: 1) find the right sound and 2) write songs that would crawl inside people’s brains and live there.

    Some Mad Hope managed to be the record where both of those things happened, but it didn’t come easy. In the years since, Nathanson has gone on record about being in a dark place when he was writing the songs that would make up his sixth album. When I spoke to him in 2015, in the lead-up to that year’s Show Me Your Fangs, he told me that, while he loves Some Mad Hope, it’s also a snapshot of a heavy time in his life. The centerpiece track, an aching almost-power-ballad called “Wedding Dress,” is a song about “coming dangerously close to divorce and the wreck of a marriage.” Nathanson has called it the song in his catalog where he was being the most honest.

    The honesty may have almost broken Nathanson, but it did the opposite for his career. What makes Some Mad Hope one of the best pop singer/songwriter records of the 2000s is the tension in the lyrics. Up to this point, Nathanson had always been able to write catchy songs, but these were on another level. There was so much ache and hurt in the lyrics, songs caught between reflecting on better times and dwelling on the possibility of ending a marriage. The cold hard truth in the songs, combined with tight production work from Mark Weinberg and Marshall Altman (known nowadays as an accomplished country music producer) made for a record that could stand on its own, without live performances and comedic banter to prop it up.

    For good reason, Matt’s decision to be unflinchingly honest gave him the first hit song of his career. “Come on Get Higher” went to 59 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a top 20 hit on Mainstream Top 40 radio. Breezy and intimate, “Higher” tends to get written off as a “Your Body Is a Wonderland” clone by people who never gave Nathanson a real shot. But the balance of the track—between the lovelorn, carnal bliss of the choruses and the sobering, regretful loneliness of the verses—makes it something more than meets the eye. “I miss the sound of your voice/Loudest thing in my head/And I ache to remember/All the violent, sweet, perfect words that you said” goes the second verse. Find me a pop song on the radio today with a better turn of phrase about lost love.

    It was that chaotic clash—of perfect happiness and bitter heartbreak—that I latched onto when I first heard Some Mad Hope. On the surface, these are love songs. That’s why someone could hear a lyric like “In your wedding dress, to have and to hold/And even at my best, I want to let go” and think the song built around it was expressing undying devotion instead of massive, restless doubt. But most of Some Mad Hope isn’t about love in the now; it’s about love in the past. “I remember hearts that beat/I remember you and me/Tangled in hotel sheets,” go the opening lines of “Still,” a song about remembering the tender moments you spent with someone who is long gone. And in the dirge-like “Bulletproof Weeks,” it’s “What happened to bulletproof weeks in your arms?/What happened to feeling cheap radio songs?/What happened to thinking that the world was flat?/What happened to that?”

    Some Mad Hope is a spectacularly human record. It’s about only recognizing the beauty of what you have when it’s gone. It’s about getting what you want and then being so unsure of yourself that you tear it down. It’s about running away because you’re scared to stand and fight. It’s about restlessness and stupid mistakes and regrets you’ll carry for the rest of your life. And in the end, it’s about dodging the bullet, recommitting, and doing the work to save something rather than let it become a faded photograph. It’s about doing what you need to do so that you don’t end up like the guy in “Bulletproof Weeks,” asking “What happened?” when you look back at the people and things that used to mean the world to you.

    All those messages caught me at the perfect time. When I bought this record on a class trip around October of 2007, I was a month from 17, newly licensed to operate an automobile, and in the midst of the most restless patch of growing up. I had a lot of things going for me: I had a great group of friends and a supportive family; I was the lead in the school musical; I was doing well in my classes. But I was yearning for something more, something amorphous that I couldn’t describe or name, and certainly not something I could reach out and grab. I felt like I was on the cusp of something, but I didn’t know what it was. And at the same time, new pressures and worries were looming: feelings I had for a girl who wasn’t available; the impending cloud of college applications; my dwindling bank account, thanks to the fact that I’d started driving just as gas prices began to skyrocket; a borderline emotionally abusive director that made the aforementioned musical more of a nightmare than a dream come true. A year previous, responsibility had seemed little more than a far-off blip on the radar. Suddenly, it was here, and I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

    Looking back now, those worries seem so slight and insignificant—especially compared to what Nathanson was actually singing about on this album. But therein lies the beauty of great songs: they find you and hold up mirrors to your life, completely separate from the artist’s intentions. I wasn’t going through a divorce (obviously) and I wasn’t even in a relationship, but the doubt, anxiety, and deep dissatisfaction running through the songs here resonated with me. So did the yearning sense of escape captured by anthems like “Car Crash,” “Heartbreak World,” and “Gone.” I may have been feeling empty, but I was also feeling the added freedom that growing up affords. I appreciated the humanity in those songs, tales of running away and starting over that sounded so unbridled and exciting—even if the dark side of leaving everything behind was always lurking just or song or two away. “I want to feel the car crash, ‘cause I’m dying on the inside”; “Let’s move out of Los Angeles/And drive until this summer gives/Forget the lives we used to live”; “Gone, let it wash away the best I had/Gone, and when I disappear, don’t expect me back.” These songs seemed to ask, “Can you drive fast enough to outrun your troubles?” As a teenage boy with his first car, I wanted to find out.

    Of course, the implicit answer the album gives is “No.” The crashing “Detroit Waves” is a song specifically about what repeated departures and goodbyes do to a relationship. “And when you’re warm enough to share your sheets/And cold enough to make it seem like I was only there/Long enough to disappear,” Nathanson sings bitterly at the top of the second verse. The point is clear: you can’t run away without leaving something behind. In “Falling Apart,” the narrator can’t decide whether he’d rather stay and be the man his partner deserves or “break loose and run.” But “Sooner Surrender,” the album’s penultimate track, was always my favorite. The aching regret of that song is so real and so pronounced, to the point where you can almost taste the bile on the back of your tongue as the lyrics describe a late-night bar where everyone is having fun but you. You, alone with a drink and your own self-imposed loneliness. “I miss when you were everything,” the track concludes. What a gut-punch.

    Eventually, Nathanson and his wife figured out a way to fix things and stay together. Me? I got over my restlessness and learned to be comfortable in my own skin. But I’ll never forget how Some Mad Hope made me feel a little less alone that fall, when I was growing up and felt like I wasn’t ready for any of it yet. There was comfort and commiseration in the sad songs and possibility in the call of the road, but the song that hit the hardest might have been the last one, where the excuses stopped and the lesson came full circle. “I kept falling over/I kept looking backward/I went broke believing/That the simple should be hard,” Nathanson sings in the first verse. Later, it’s “Well it’s hard to change the way you lose/If you think you’ve never won.” Those lines were my reality check after an ocean of self-centered brooding. I was overthinking my own life, and I was missing things in the process: friendships; romance; youth as it’s supposed to be. If I could go back, I would change a lot of things about that year, but I would never trade the soundtrack.

  2. momo32t


    Very poignant review, even 10 years later. I am still wishing this will be pressed on vinyl.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  3. derekjd

    Slow down, Quentin Supporter

    Oh man, a great record. Your writeup captures it perfectly, to. I love how you take the records through the lens of when you found them; the combination of music and memory makes your writing vivid. Any news on his next record?
    Craig Manning likes this.
  4. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    You and me both. It's very near the top of my wishlist at this point. He seemed doubtful that it would ever happen when I talked to him a few years ago, but who knows. Weirder things have gotten pressed on wax lately.

    Thanks dude!

    I'm not sure. He tweeted something a few weeks ago about recording another song with Jennifer Nettles, so it's being recorded. I kind of doubt we'll get it this year, but I hope we will!
  5. momo32t


    It's so bizarre that Show Me Your Fangs and Last Of The Great Pretenders got pressed. I'd so much rather have Beneath These Fireworks, Some Made Hope or Modern Love.
  6. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    I think it was a matter of timing, on those. Some Mad Hope was kind of right before vinyl blew up again. If it came out now, they'd press it. Modern Love actually did get pressed, just in small quantities. My brother has a copy of it.

    I'm glad to have Show Me Your Fangs. Still haven't bought Pretenders, because it's weirdly expensive and one I don't love has much.
    momo32t likes this.
  7. momo32t


    I'd tend to agree on the timing. I still remember the day I got my signed preorder of Some Mad Hope in the mail. Yea I had thought Modern Love got pressed and can't seem to find it on any secondary market. I agree on Pretenders, its not worth owning for the 2-3 songs on it I actually like.
  8. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Yeah, I hunted for Modern Love for a bit a few years ago and couldn't find it anywhere. No one is selling. And for good reason: it's a great record.

    Which songs do you like on Pretenders. I really like about half of it, and there's nothing I outright dislike, but the highs are mostly not as high as his other records (other than "Last Days of Summer in San Francisco," which is probably a top five Matt Nathanson song for me), and it lacks cohesion. Show Me Your Fangs was also kind of scattershot, but it a more compelling listen to me, with better songs overall. I quite like that record, even if it doesn't measure up to Some Mad Hope or Modern Love.
  9. tumbleweedterror

    music is all we got

    This was an incredible read and it made me remember just how important this record is to me too. Some Made Hope also found me as a young person in a tumultuous time and I'll always love it for in some ways anchoring me and in other ways giving me an outlet for all the shit in my brain. Thanks for sharing!
    Craig Manning likes this.
  10. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Thanks for reading. One of those records that really came out of nowhere for me. I knew of him before this, but wasn't a die hard fan or anything. Read a great review of it and decided to pick it up on a whim while browsing the CD selection in a bookstore on a class trip. So glad I did.
    tumbleweedterror likes this.
  11. momo32t


    The only three that really get replays from me are "Kinks Shirt", "Mission Bells" and "Sunday New York Times". It's a shame because that record really fell flat for me. I agree that Fangs is also unorganized, but has better staying power.

    While "Gone" may be my favorite track on Some Mad Hope, that last line of "Sooner Surrender" still kills me. His cadence on that last line is so effective.
  12. DearCory


    This man has never had a dud. For me, my favorite is Modern Love... Room at the End of the World is the most devastatingly beautiful song... the line "Sad can't catch me, or call me baby now... when it's all I used to believe" is easily one of the best ever written
  13. momo32t


    Love that line too. Definitely my favorite song on Modern Love.
    DearCory likes this.
  14. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Surprised you don't like "Last Days." That one seems pretty classic Matt Nathanson to me.

    "Sooner Surrender," "Car Crash," and "Wedding Dress" are probably my top three. The latter is so great live. So fucking loud, too.

    "Room at the End of the World" might be my favorite song of his. His best hook, I think.
    DearCory likes this.
  15. momo32t


    My top 3 from that album vacillate, but its usually 1. Gone 2. Detroit Waves/Car Crash 3. Falling Apart. I love all the singles, but those three hold a special place for me.

    My top 5 generally are: 1. Fall to Pieces 2. Answering Machine 3. Gone 4. Disappear 5. Car Crash. Honorable mentions to Church Clothes, Room @ The End of The World, and Sad Songs.
  16. momo32t


    On another listen it does belong in the best of Pretenders. I guess I had associated it with how disappointing the album overall was. I don't think any of those songs would beat out anything on Fireworks, Some Made Hope and Modern Love
  17. DKrame2


    Thank you for this spot on and beautifully written review of one of my favorite albums of all time. I was entering freshman year of college so you can imagine how much emotional connection I felt to this album.

    I am surprised by the negative opinions of Pretenders in here. It was probably my most disappointing first listen of one of his albums but the biggest grower. No one has even mentioned Farewell, December which I think is maybe his most mature and best written song he's written. The imagery in those lyrics are very Matt Nathanson and his best executed. Birthday Girl is another one that is near perfect in my mind.

    Fangs was easily my least listened to Matt Nathanson record. It's his least cohesive, most random, and flattest effort. I will say Bill Murray is my favorite Matt Nathanson song. I hope his next album he goes back to the kind of songwriting he's so good at.
  18. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Fireworks is hit or miss for me. Some songs I really love, but I generally think of it as a lower tier record. A lot of it sounds like demos to me. I'd take Pretenders over it, probably.

    "Farewell December" is great. I enjoy that record a lot, but it doesn't really have a central theme or anything to pull it together. He's kind of throwing everything in a blender to see what works. I guess the unifying element is that all the songs are kind of about San Francisco. I think Fangs was similarly split, in terms of mood, but it felt a little more deliberate to me. Maybe that's just because I interviewed him on that record and got a sense of what his headspace was.
  19. derekjd

    Slow down, Quentin Supporter

    I don't know. Pretenders soundtracked a pretty big summer for me (before sophomore year in College, getting into a new relationship, getting out of a brevious bad one, and I was in around San Fran). I can't listen to that album and not go back to those days. It's probably my favorite of his.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  20. momo32t


    Matt must've held out on us on previous interviews, but never say never. Looks like Some Mad Hope is finally coming to vinyl!