Album Review: All is Not Lost, by Matt Ellin

by on December 4, 2017

Posted in: Album Review

When I first met Matt Ellin, he was by far the coolest punk kid at our Pennsylvania performing arts summer camp, and at first I hadn’t the slightest idea how to relate to him. But as fate would have it, we soon became close friends and musical collaborators. He has always been intimidatingly funny, talented, and hip, but at the same time friendly, earnest, and approachable. He gives the impression of a character from some beloved ‘90s cartoon who’s just stepped into the real world, both perplexed and amused by the behavior of people around him, always uttering keenly perceptive and hilariously phrased observations and witticisms. Anyone who meets him is charmed by his demeanor; those who get to know him love him for his realness. No one can deny the brilliance of his performing abilities and deft instrumental skill, but he’s always been the type to sacrifice his ego for the music, showing off his talent only when the song requires it.

Ellin now fosters a burgeoning career as a folk-rock singer/songwriter in his home city of Baltimore. He has released two excellent EPs, “hey nice” and “Black Flag,” the first of which channels the best qualities of folk-punk with its muffled acoustic guitars, short track lengths, and emotive lyrics; the second of which delivers a charming Car Seat Headrest-influenced lo-fi rock sound, with brilliantly absurdist lyrics. On Ellin’s debut 2017 studio album, All Is Not Lost, he brings it back to mostly acoustic guitars and leaves the muddle of lo-fi behind, pulling back the curtain to expose his pleasant baritone voice and irresistible melodies in the blaring spotlight. It’s a welcome change for Ellin, because while the lo-fi recording style of his previous releases gave the production a uniquely compelling character, it also obscured a lot of what makes his music so outstanding, particularly the vocals and lyrics.

Eschewing traditional vocal techniques, Ellin mumbles his lyrics at the very bottom of his register, but without compromising the melody or the clarity of the lyrics. His voice is soothing and complements the bittersweet emotion and casual witticism of the lyrics. It’s a distinctive vocal style that helps Ellin stand out from the crowd, but at the same time it’s reminiscent of the great songwriter Leonard Cohen, one of Ellin’s heroes.

Also reminiscent of Cohen are the lyrics, which tell tales ranging from the personal (“Intersection,” “Friends”) to the comedic (“The Dolt Examines Wonders of a Life”) to the fantastical (“Southern Hole”) to the dysfunctionally romantic (“Don’t Be Strange”) to the utterly absurd (“Hobgoblin Moon”). They are always exceptionally intelligent and full of surprises and refreshing idiosyncrasies. “And the stone from the sidewalk mercurially rocked and rose / As we traced the moonlight of the comatose kite with our toes / And we scarfed down fried chicken and pizza, got sauce on my nose / No, I may not know much but still, even the idiot knows,” Ellin croons on “Even the Idiot,” swinging effortlessly between surrealist verbosity and rustic simplicity. These kinds of surprising lyrical twists flow from Ellin’s mouth naturally and conversationally throughout the album.

The opener and first single, “Intersection,” sets the album rolling with a midtempo rock beat, meandering Pavement-style guitar, and an infectious bass line. Ellin murmurs two verses of poignant but funny lyrics: “Now I’m falling asleep, sick and somber in the chasm of a daylight’s dream / I assure you I am better adjusted than this, less indefatigable than I seem.” At the end, the song bursts into a spasming guitar solo while an unexpected synthesizer joins in. It’s a short-and-sweet, sprightly track that perfectly sets the tone for the album.

From then on, nothing is predictable. Each song has its own personality, but each is also infused with the inimitable character of Matt Ellin. A kind of funky oddball blues emerges on “Hobgoblin Moon,” where Ellin’s dissonant guitar chords bring to mind Stephen Malkmus’s stranger tracks, while his lyrics conjure bizarre, fragmented imagery: “An angel / A utility ploy / Not here nor there, quoth the hundredth homunculus boy.” Even when the meaning behind the words is obscure, Ellin’s surrealist wordplay is an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Then there are moments of pure personal honesty and emotional clarity. “Friends,” with its bouncy synths and light descending-major-scale melody, carries the risk of not being taken seriously, but any amount of attention to the lyrics will reveal powerfully honest confessions, à la Will Toledo or maybe a less unhinged Patrick Stickles. “The plight of loving oneself is easier said when you’re not yourself / And when you get down to it, everyone wishes they were someone else.” Wise words from a wise 18-year-old songwriter.

Ellin’s distinctive style works so shockingly well with such a variety of genres—indie folk, blues, alt-country, even a bit of electronic—one starts to wonder, is there anything he can’t do? This thoroughly lovable debut doesn’t offer any answers to that question. It does, however, put Ellin in the spotlight as a brilliant songwriter and a musical force to be reckoned with. I may have stated at the beginning of this review that I’m Matt Ellin’s friend, but I can say with objective criteria that this is one of the more exciting albums I’ve heard all year, and I look forward to hearing more from this up-and-coming songwriter.