Matthew Heller’s music has the balls-out attitude of rock, and the confrontational intelligence of folk. The atom-smashing combination of both on his new album Invitation creates a dangerous fission, where any song can go from asking the big questions to simply breaking things.
The Portland, Oregon, singer-songwriter isn’t alone, of course, in his penchant for the loud-soft dynamic. It’s the trenchant topics that set him apart.
After all, every kid from Townshend to Reznor originally slung a guitar over his head in a fit of boiling rage. Heller, though, wants to channel that into things like the new-found disconnect we’ve developed over remote-control warfare (the roaring anger of “Drone Strike”), post-modern nihilism (the angular spitting folk of “Man’s Prayer”), the scourge of addiction (the stamping aggression of “Another Dose”). We catch glimpses of a difficult childhood, too, with blunt themes that resonant for anyone who struggled to find their way in songs like “Father’s Son” and “Howdy from Hades.”
Elsewhere, “Space Girl” and “Dismay King” draw a straight line to an obvious influence in the Smashing Pumpkins. “Another Dose” and “Jaclyn of Spades” sound like a tough-guy channeling Ani DiFranco. But ultimately, Heller doesn’t sound much like anyone. Truth be told, there’s a reckless musical abandon here that Billy Corgan never had access to, and Heller simply feels too much to be confused with edgy agit-propsters like DiFranco — at least for very long.
Listen, for instance, as he settles into these moments of devastating rumination on “Interlude” and “Sink or Swim,” as Heller finds a way to sound even more determinedly special. After all, there’s a bravery in being so quiet, so very still, after having unleashed such girder-loosening fury. The truth is, Heller has an unforgettable way with both.
The cover art for Invitation was done by Katie Belle Van Zandt, daughter of Townes Van Zandt.