Matt Berry has is someone who has stealthily raised his reputation in the music industry in recent years without the wider world really noticing, slowly but surely increasing his audience size by word of mouth, putting out a new album every year since 2013 and playing rapturously received gigs. While The Small Hours hasn’t received a vast media push by any means, it’s an album that has been much anticipated by fans of Berry’s previous albums, myself included.
The brief “Intro” is effectively a squall of sound, before “One by One” starts proper with a vintage keyboard sound and a deceptively accessible arrangement gradually unfolds like a beautiful piece of musical origami. It’s early confirmation that Berry continues to explore of a sound which is a bit prog rock and a tiny bit folk rock served beside a generous dollop of psych-pop, which by and large is exactly what his fans want.
“The Peach & the Melon” and “Say It Again” continue to reassure the listener that The Small Hours is a release which effortlessly maintains the high standards of Berry’s previous albums, which isn’t to say it’s more of the same. Infant, on initial listen The Small Hours can be a slightly frustrating and elusive beast. It certainly took me three or four listens to realise that its charms lay in the fact that it’s slightly more low-key mood adds a slightly different sonic texture to Berry’s audio palette, but then you realise, each of his previous albums had a different mood, and it just happens that The Small Hours is perhaps a little more complex and subdued.
For those who might expect Berry’s musical output to be an extension of his career in comedy, The Small Hours lays that theory to bed once and for all. Matt Berry is obviously a man who takes his music very seriously indeed, creating gorgeously crafted musical gems and working with some of the very best musicians available. Nowhere on The Small Hours is this more obvious than on the expansive instrumental “Night Terrors”, which alters the tone of the album dramatically, resulting in a sound which seems to blend the groggy instrumental landscapes of 2014’s Music for Insomniacs with a sound which is as close to jazz as anything in my music collection that I listen to on a regular basis. At close to ten minutes, “Night Terrors” pretty much dominates the second half of the album, but it very much has its place, as you start to realise that The Small Hours might not be as random a title as it seems, with the shorter tunes with vocals maybe representing a series of short dreams, while “Night Terrors” represents a deeper, more intense and disturbing slumber, before a series of shorter, less disturbing dreams light the path towards the morning. Or maybe not. I dunno, maybe both myself and Berry just need to lay off the cheese before bedtime to ensure a more restful slumber.
After the deep instrumental exploration of “Night Terrors”, the more upbeat brass-driven “The Lord Above” offers a welcome contrast, before the downbeat feel is once again returned to with “Obsessed and So Obscure”, the track that was released as a preview for The Small Hours. Again, on initial listen, it didn’t give much away about itself, which indicated that The Small Hours was an album that might be a slightly more challenging listen, but on reflection, it’s a great song and just indicated that the album might take a little more time to get into than Berry’s previous releases. In that sense, it was a well chosen track to preview the album, as it pretty much represents the whole album in miniature.
I’m not sure what Berry might have been hoping to achieve The Small Hours, but that doesn’t stop it from being an album with a reassuringly satisfying weight, as it stirs emotions in a way that you may not expect a Matt Berry album to do. They are complex emotions too, with hope, reflection, regret, optimism and acceptance all thrown into the mix, with Berry’s vocals becoming a strangely soothing balm for the soul.
If you’re someone who expects Berry’s music to reflect his comedy persona, then The Small Hours is the album that will put that assumption to bed once and for all. Not only is Matt Berry one of the most entertaining comedy actors of current times, he also happens to be one of our finest musical acts as well.