Aqualung’s Matt Hales thought he had it all figured out. In 2007, the British singer/songwriter told a London audience that he was retiring. “I’d had enough of it at that point and thought I might just be a teacher or do something else.”
However, the stellar batch of tunes that make up his new Verve album, “Magnetic North,” came calling and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. “The songs were like ‘Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, C’mon dad, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,’ Hales laughs. “I’m still ever so slightly reluctant, but I don’t have any choice. I’m like the guy in the park with 12 giant puppies being pulled along; I didn’t want to come out. Well, I made these puppies so I guess I must have secretly wanted to get out there.”
“Magnetic North” is Hales’ first album of all new material since he relocated from England to sunny Los Angeles last fall. (In 2008, Verve released “Words and Music,” a set largely comprised of re-recordings of previously released songs.) A song snippet, “California,” foreshadowed his new home. “When that song was written, it still just represented somewhere else, something else better. It was New Year’s Eve 2008 when my wife Kim [Oliver] and I decided it was time for a change.”
Hales compares “Magnetic North” to a Robert Altman movie. “The common theme is mature relationships in various degrees of difficulty,” he says. “They’re not all the same relationship. It’s not all my relationship. Some of it is fiction, some of it isn’t. The thing that is common to all these relationships, whether they last or not, is there was a point when the other person was everything.” And, with luck, will be again. “The bottom line is ‘We’re all fucked up, but I love you, so there’s got to be some hope.’”
As cohesively as the album works as a whole, individual tunes stand entirely on their own. “Each song in itself was totally convincing to me,” Hales says. “They all are completely different, but they actually are from the same parents.”
Or at least the same dad. Hales wrote the 12 songs with his usual collaborators—
his wife and his brother, Ben, but also worked with a few special co-writers, including Scottish band Blue Nile’s legendary Paul Buchanan (on “36 Hours”). “If you want to know why I make the music I do, it has a lot to do with Blue Nile,” Hales says. “The fact that we’ve become friends is a magical thing.”
“Magnetic North” is a glorious celebration of smart pop music. Led by Hales’ exquisite keyboard-based melodies, the album’s 12 songs revel in impossibly upbeat joy, such as the Beck-like opening track “New Friend,” and the unabashedly, non-cynical “Fingertip,” as they just as surely drown in the bleak sorrow of “Sundowning” or layered, grand majesty of “Time Moves Slow.” The chugging, percussive “Hummingbird” exalts in the force majeure of Hales’ 2-year-old daughter. In their own way, each song sweeps the listener up in its arms and takes him or her on a musical journey.
“Magnetic North” includes many guests including Sara Bareilles on the haunting “Remember Us” and “New Friend,” as well as A Fine Frenzy’s Alison Sudol on “Time Moves Slow,” and Kelly Sweet on “Fingertip” and “Sundowning.”
“The thing that I noticed is that in so many of these songs, there are really two protagonists and it’s a couple. It doesn’t have to be a man and a woman, but it made an awful lot of sense for there to be two vocalists,” Hales says. “I didn’t realize how well it was going to work.”
Hales recorded “Magnetic North” over a five-day period at his home studio, The Box (named so because it’s as big as a cardboard box, he jokes) and at The Bank, a friend’s studio in Burbank. The core musicians were Hales, his brother and drummer/percussionist David Price.
“The Bank is fantastic because it’s just festooned with marvelous instruments,” he says. “I said, ‘Somewhere in the space of these days, we’re just going to go on this crazy musical mining mission to find it’ and we just went nuts. We worked really hard, we worked fast, we’d grab an instrument, find an arrangement and go, ‘that sounds fantastic, record that.’”
Unlike 2007’s “Memory Man,” which had a more aggressive rock slant, “Magnetic North” favors a lush, layered sound. “Brian Wilson is my lifelong musical hero, so [his influence] is probably just in there all the time,” Hales says. “In some ways, the album is orchestrally arranged, even though we don’t use orchestral arrangements, which is a kind of ‘Pet Sounds’ aesthetic in some ways. I wanted to make an enjoyable, accessible, instantly gratifying record.”
“Magnetic North” is short on snare drums and electric guitars. “This is a back-from-the-brink kind of record, so there’s a sense that it should have a warmer exterior,” Hales explains. “That’s why it’s acoustic instruments.”
Hales further switched things up by tracking his vocals at the same time as he recorded his keyboards instead of the traditional ways of recording the vocals last. “I’d always be amazed that I played the piano completely differently on stage than I did in the studio and I sang completely differently,” he says. “I like a lot of how that was and I thought, how do I get that when we record?”
Despite his proclamation to quit touring, Hales will take to the road for short stints for “Magnetic North” if, for nothing else, to give his latest collection of kids their due. “These songs, quite apart from me as their guardian, really want to be out in the world,” he says. “They don’t want to be hidden away. These songs are demanding it. I feel like I’m being pushed along by these little spindly hands.” And, like any good parent, all he wants is what’s best for his children.
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