Like a British James Franco sporting a well shampooed badger on his face, Matt Berry operates on another level to us mere mortals. The foghorn-voiced Renaissance man’s talents are capable of skipping across the screen, onto the stage, behind the pen and into a Volvic water bottle with ease; all while he campaigns ceaselessly as an ambassador for refugees, the multi-faceted cad.
In addition to mastering the Rik Mayall school of acting through a run of brash, over-sexualised alpha male figures on British television, Berry has also found time to release a string of experimental prog-folk records that started with 2008’s ‘Opium’. The keen multi-instrumentalist can commonly be found recording every note of his musical output and often teaches himself new instruments from scratch in a matter of weeks. He may not look it, but Matt Berry is pretty much a modern Da Vinci, just with better hair and without the propensity for sketching weapons of mass destruction in his notepad margins.
What we're trying to say through all this awestruck gushing is that, if this article was a review of Matt Berry as a man, a leader of men and a passionate lover (or so I nightly imagine), he’d get 10/10 every time. But, as those of you who’ve cheated and scrolled down to the bottom of this page to see the score will know, this polemic sadly ends here.
Like its predecessor ‘Music For Insomniacs’, ‘The Small Hours’ purports to have been drawn from that surrealistic period between midnight and dawn when the frayed edges of dreams seem to weave themselves into strands of inspiration. But while the luscious ‘Insomniacs’ channelled Brian Eno at his most inspired, ‘Hours’ channels Dave Gilmour at his sleepiest. This instinctive, stream-of-consciousness writing results in some pleasant melodies on tracks such as ‘Beam Me Up’ and ‘Say It Again’. Overall, however, this exercise in easy listening is about the most dad-friendly thing Berry’s done since that BBC Father’s Day special.
Opener ‘One By One’ amounts to little more than the kind of straightforward acoustic rock ballad that could be churned out by any number of greying pub-bound bands scattered about the country, while elsewhere ‘Gone For Good’ sounds like it could have been the result of David Gray’s reggae phase in some horrifically dystopian parallel universe. Maybe it’s just be the fact that Berry has been writing with his live band in the studio for the first time and has had to streamline his usually ambitious writing process; but the spark of unpredictability that defined his previous records is sadly lacking.
For the first time in his musical career Matt Berry sounds like an aging comedian living out his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. I don’t want to whack out a lazy Ricky Gervais comparison (they both starred in seminal '00s BBC comedies! They both played hapless bosses stuck with outdated values! etc.), but there are shades of ‘Life On The Road’ audible here that simply cannot be denied. That would be fine if his music was a similar extension of his comic persona, but there’s no Brent-like goatee and nod to the camera for Berry to hide behind here. When moonlighting as a musician he has always been careful to drop his signature onscreen hamminess and affected gruff roar in exchange for a stripped back vulnerability. So when you hear him sincerely uttering lines like “The peach said to her sister ‘Oi there melon! This is heaven,’” on the godawful ‘The Peach and the Melon”, your toes can’t help but curl up faster than a frightened hedgehog.
Most of these issues are confined to the safer first half of the album. Things improve drastically towards its back end when the instrumental jazzathon ‘Night Terrors’ rocks up to the party with a lopsided grin and a picnic hamper of hard drugs. Like his past albums’ bloated highlights ‘The Pheasant’ and ‘Solstice’, this winding nine minute-er demonstrates that Berry is at his best when he goes wildly off script. The similarly late in the day single ‘Obsessed And So Obscure’ is instantly familiar in the best of ways, despite some bizarre lyrics about lusting after Christopher Lee (to reiterate, this is not a comedy album).
Still, despite this late-album salvaging, ‘The Small Hours’ marks the first Matt Berry album that might merit a little ‘stick to the day job’ heckling from its audience. With any luck this constitutes no more than a blip, a small blemish on the well-groomed polymath’s sterling and varied career that will be overshadowed by his future endeavours. As it stands, though, this is a record that should only be bought if you feel like another pair of socks might just drive your dad to do something drastic this Christmas.
Words: Josh Gray
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