Matt Berry’s debut album on Acid Jazz, Witchazel, included prog gems and a McCartney-featuring track; since then he’s released well-received albums like The Small Hours and Television Themes.
New album Phantom Birds is no different to previous marvels, confounding expectations once more. This sees a simpler sound, with Berry accompanied only by pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole and drummer Craig Blundell for an album with the primal core of Dylan’s Nashville trio of albums. The result is a refined and nuanced work, erstwhile not sacrificing any of Berry’s famed theatrical creativity.
Though it would be easy to associate with the contemporary street-poet himself, Berry’s mastery of the harmonica takes an entirely different guise than Dylan here. Berry’s usage of the mouthorgan is sharper, cleaner, prettier but still wholly powerful. Look no further than second track Danced All Night for an example of this, with the harmonica wheezing urgent exaltations between the vocals. Said track holds a spectacular medley of instrumentation; the rhythmic yearn of Berry’s vocals falling in naturally with the almost caustic, clattering strain of Berry’s guitar strums. Berry’s guitar playing is a constant joy throughout the album, whatever style. Drumming deity Craig Blundell sets Phantom Birds’ tremendous pace and flow like a true powerhouse, erstwhile displaying his progressive prowess on Man of Doom. Berry implements the organ to dazzling effect on several tracks, to the greatest altitude on Moonlight Flit; where the instrument ascends it with each electrifying screech.
Berry’s musical career has frequently dealt in the fanciful whimsy his greatest TV roles have carried, Toast of London and What We Do in the Shadows among them. Many such moments arise here, on both individual tracks and the overall aura, Berry handling these superbly; completely void of cliché. Track’s like Man of Doom demonstrate this perfectly, via the theatrics of lyrical listing with “Head of goat”, “Head of feet”, “Head of state”, “Head of sheep”, show off the artist’s talent for witty song-writing whilst also existing as brilliantly enjoyable music. This exceptional track, with it’s hysterical and swiftly barrelling drive, besides it’s deliriously impactful rhythm guitar and organ partnership, is just one way the album ensures it’s gritty façade is maintained alongside more than a smidgeon of fun. Elsewhere, Berry directs such stylistic swerves as the minute-long, piano-led, wistful fervour of Where is my Love, which sees his candid pleas evaporate into a heady, fading swirl. Moments like this diversify the album infinitely, this one leading seamlessly into second single Take a Bow. Intermission does so with similar panache, it’s blissful pedal steel guitar and parry of saccharine flute leading sweetly into the harmonica-blaring Hail to the King. Perfectly placed toward the album’s rear, Waving Goodbye is a charming frolic, seemingly an adieu to life’s turmoil; completed by blazes of flute, memorable lead guitar and sensational, echoing backing vocals.
These run sublimely alongside the similarly intriguing and enjoyable tributary of the album’s more emotive, tangibly nuanced side. The title track is exceptional in this, as a plaintive offering where Berry’s baritone vocals are liltingly warm, taking on a ballad-y light as they elucidate a searching tone. This not quite sorrowful but nomadic and contemplative mood is brought on by the cantering instrumentation, complimented by the waterfall cascade of sustained notes from BJ Cole. It is also due in part, though, to Berry’s way with words in pattering rhymes like “Will the rest just keep hanging on? / Who is left from the pantheon? / Let me ramble on”. In My Mind deals in a similarly searching energy, yet an ounce of whimsy also pervades in lines like “So I went to the wise man, who gave me some leaves/What the hell am I meant to do with these?”. The track espouses deep sentimentality, of a hysteria caused by intense infatuation. These emotions are magnified by the harmonica’s cries of awe in the track’s beginning; the guitar-organ furore in the outro.
Personal experience, the bravado of his TV roles, and the nuance of his musicality overlap in closer Covered in Clowns, it’s serene meandering spirit accentuated by the aching pedal-steel guitar. Here, Berry tells of how, in his magnificently unabashed fashion, “I auditioned for the director John Landis who offered me the part there and then, only to deny ever meeting me some weeks later…”.
With Berry partnering these myriad vignettes together so well, Phantom Birds is an astonishingly succinct, striking narrative of a record; which evidences a craft Berry has finely honed, since his teenage years, to near-perfection. This evidence lies not just in an undeniably fruitful and varied music career, collaborating with the likes of Josh Homme, but also his fullest and best record yet.