January can be depressing. You wake up to darkness, gingerly brave the cold and dream about your duvet as if it were some great, lost love, but there are few better feelings than rediscovering comfort at the end of a long, bitter day. I know this, you know this, and Matthew E. White knows this. Despite being released last August in his native United States, his debut album, Big Inner, analogously attempt at capturing a downbeat yet summery glow for year-round and wintry enjoyment in particular.
White himself is the unassuming heart of the record; the mumbling epicentre around which this 41-minute jam session ebbs, flows, rises and falls. He is defiantly old-fashioned but unique in his method, giving the record a flavour of early Motown and rock ‘n’ roll while also pushing such traditional sounds in idiosyncratic ways. Established genres such as these are made surprising again by White’s meandering approach to composition and a deep, cracked voice that a 29-year-old should have no right to.
White’s sprawling band and backing singers are required to do much of the heavy lifting and provide the vinyl zeal, leaving White to quietly muse on matters of love and religion. God is a forgiving presence in White’s mind, not a figure to be ruthlessly deconstructed but one of reassurance – “Jesus Christ is our lord / Jesus Christ, he is your friend” goes the refrain of triumphant closer ‘Brazos’. The conversational ‘Will You Love Me’, meanwhile, sees a painful break-up playing out in an almost objective fashion. Sure, he’s hurt – “It’s such a drag to be on your own / Baby, you left and you didn’t say why” – but there’s a knowing maturity about White’s lyricism that shelters him amid such pain and confusion.
Faith and heartbreak are just part of the furniture in this strange world; there’s no melodrama or proselytising in his words. At times, his sober voice seems to bear little connection the billowing mix of strings, brass and gospel choirs that shift from understated grooves to ‘A Day in the Life’-like chaos. As the fluctuate in tone and volume, White is a model of consistency and especially even-keeled during the album’s headier moments.
Though epic in its shagginess, Big Inner can feel like one long song arbitrarily split into seven song-like pieces. While you may wait for greater urgency or even a hint of forward momentum, White will revel at his own amiable pace, valuing a naturalistic flow and comforting ambience above all else. ‘Brazos’ teases what might have been as, one by one, each section of White’s band finds its niche along the bass line, building towards a lolling crescendo with all these seemingly disparate elements clicking into place rather splendidly. As it is, Big Inner is a little bit flabby and not really prepared to go anywhere, which is a state we can all probably sympathise with as we settle into the new year, but there are enough reminders of warmth and affection to please until we forget these bleak winter months.