A few weeks ago my father-in-law asked me, as the family’s resident source of music recommendations, if there was an act in the contemporary music scene that I was genuinely excited about. “Matt Berry”, was my immediate answer.
The reason for my lack of hesitation in my response was simple. Other than Half Man Half Biscuit, there’s no other contemporary act whose new album I would go out of my way to buy on the day of release. Matt Berry may be primarily known for his over-blown and over-sexed comedy creations, but his reputation as a peerless proponent of psych-pop has been steadily growing over the last few years, with ear-catching albums like Witchazel and Kill the Wolf being among the very best releases in the last decade, while Music for Insomniacs proved he was equally adept at prog-flecked ambient doodling, and last year’s Matt Berry and The Maypoles Live provided all the evidence necessary that he could translate his wonderful music into an equally glorious live show.
Opium was originally given a very limited release back in 2008, at a time while Berry was still in the process of establishing his comedy credentials with the wider public. Imagine the surprise of a comedy fan flicking through the racks of their local music store and seeing Berry’s face staring out at them from the cover of Opium. It’s that guy from The Mighty Boosh and Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place. What the hell is this? Is this some sort of tie in with either of those series? Is this part of an elaborate joke?
The first thing that strikes you about Opium, is that there are a lot more narrative monologues dotted throughout the album than on Berry’s later albums. Given his instantly recognisable work as a comedic voice-over artist, these narratives blur the lines between his music and comedy further. One such monologue acts as the fulcrum to “Introduction”, following which Berry gives us a heart-stopping prog-rock keyboard feature that utterly eclipses anything that Yes or ELP have ever released.
Musical genius already established, Berry instantly heads for downbeat textures with “Reach for the Ground”, an oddly heartrending yet romantic number of resignation and regret that cuts through all the emotional bullshit and just hits you in a place of utter truth. There are top-flight acts incapable of recording material this emotionally effecting, yet Berry somehow manages to tap into a well of genius that few musicians discover these days. The genius levels are maintained with “Love is a Fool”, a song which would serve Berry well as the theme to the Snuff Box television series, as it features a curiously infectious melody which he has revisited on and off throughout his career. It’s effectively become Berry’s signature song, and Opium boasts two versions of this surprisingly versatile tune.
“Lay Your Love On Me” finds Berry making effective inroads into the style of pastoral psych pop that he would expand upon greatly on both Witchazel and Kill the Wolf. It’s a great tune, bookended by an amusing, yet unsettling, monologue intro, and closing with a repeated coda of ‘making love above the pub’. It’s one of those moments dotted throughout Opium where, for all its comedic trappings, you still find yourself impressed by the musicianship on display, something driven home when you realise that Berry plays the majority of instruments on the album.
Opium’s middle third is initially relatively dense sounding and harder work to get into than the rest of the album, but repeated listens reveal its charms, as “White Hood”, “The Hangman” and the title track slowly bubble their way from the back to the front of your psyche at the most unexpected of moments. It’s a neat trick that few full time musicians manage to achieve, but Berry’s seemingly relaxed approach works in his favour, so once you start to appreciate Opium, it’s an album that you return to time and time again.
Towards the end of the album, you might expect Opium to start flagging, but you’d be wrong. “Hot Dog” is an oddly enjoyable tune, while “Jet Setter” finds Berry inhabiting one of his terminally unlucky in love comedy creations as they clumsily attempt to chat up a girl in a seedy nightclub. Once again this blurring between comedy character and legitimately great tune is more effective than you’d reasonably expect. As Berry heads for the finish line he revisits “Love is a Fool (Again)” and closes the album with the half pretty / half ironic / wholly poignant “One More Hit”, which acts as one last emotional cannonball to the gut.
While the wider public continue to be a little unsure about where Berry’s music fits in with his comedy work, his later albums have found a receptive audience among those who just love great music. Opium is certainly an album that can wrong-foot the listener, as it is as capable of make them chuckle as it is of reaching the most emotionally tender parts of the soul. Whatever Matt Berry was hoping to achieve with Opium, you can’t deny it’s stuffed full of memorable hooks, choruses, moments of musical genius and him mastering a soothing singing style, which iyself is completely at odds with his comedic voice-over technique.
Opium is an album which invites few comparisons to anything else released in recent years, existing in its own private universe, yet inviting you to explore to your heart’s content. I can only encourage you to undertake that journey of discovery.