I’ve listened to “Tetro” – the opening song of Double Exposure (which was featured on this site) – for a good couple of months now. During this time, several more of Matt Kivel’s compositions has been made public, not least the phenomenal title track that we also featured a while back. And what for me started out as a mild fascination for Kivel, has slowly turned into something profoundly more important. First of all, it’s fair to say that Kivel, the former sideman of Sleeping Bags, Princeton and Gap Dream, is the most underrated new artist of the year, and that realization alone should lead to more people wanting to hear his music. But don’t just take my word for it; Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene gave Double Exposure 8.0 calling it “a small masterpiece of humble virtues”, and concluding that “It’s been seven month since I (Greene) first tried to puzzle out Double Exposure, and it keeps eluding me.” Moreover, Greene compared Kivel to the great Nick Drake, which is not only understandable and fitting; it should ultimately give further inclination towards the album’s strength.
The album opens with the aforementioned “Tetro”, the track that most obviously embodies the sentiment of Double Exposure. It’s a beautiful two-faced song that starts with a looping guitar melody that supplements Kivel’s centered voice that feel close and deeply personal. There is an almost celestial synth pad that drifts along in the background, until a sudden change in texture leads to the synth pad being dissolved into an aerial ambient middle part. Just as abrupt, the track finished off as it begun. It’s one of those songs that is not quite folk, but not really anything else either. And the same goes for most of the album’s ten tracks. Only on two occasions does Kivel let the airwaves be dominated by a fuller soundscape. Both “Double Exposure” and “All Will Be Well” are a lot more orthodox in the use of its building blocks. But orthodox in a way that they convey a sound analogous to Kurt Vile or The War On Drugs, not as something that could be regarded as traditional. Otherwise, the arrangement on the rest of the album sounds almost as if there where sculpted out of thin air. Seldom more than a fingerpicking on a guitar or an ambient pad that trails besides Kivel’s delicate falsetto. There’s an experimental edge to these arrangements that are so much broader in scope than a simple tag or label could do justice. And the hollow silence amongst the chords serves as much as an instrument as the guitar, and it’s precisely the understated nature of these songs that work as their most obvious strength.
I love the contrast between the raw nakedness of the lyrics and the beauty of the subtle changes in the chord progressions. Kivel’s words are often sullen, almost to the point of being uncomfortable; “Suicide to me/ Bloodied from the hatchet / Pleasure to me/Wishing I was dead”, Kivel croons on “Tetro”. Or as on “Rainbow Trout”; “It absorbed the scent from all its strain / She would look down, blue and white / Crush its head beneath the carving knife”. And perhaps most disturbingly on “Whip”, where Kivel sings the only line of the song – “I want to kill myself” – told from the perspective of a whipped horse. But remarkably, it’s not as depressing as it sounds, as the troubling lyrics never overshadow the beauty of the music. There isn’t anything terribly complex about these compositions. In fact, in terms of the music, it’s rather straightforward. For the most part, this is music that talks to the heart, not to the brain. Yet, the lyrics will tell you the exact opposite. This obvious juxtapose is one of the most fascinating aspects of an album concealed in mystique.
It’s difficult to comprehend why this album hasn’t been reviewed or talked about more than it has. Apart from Greene’s Pitchfork review, I haven’t found a single music publication site or blog that picked up on Double Exposure. It’s a big shame, especially since Greene was dead-on; it is a masterpiece. It’s relatively rare for me to be this enthusiastic about a debut, let alone by an album that is this modest in its virtue. Yet, after living with this album for a few weeks, I’ll be hard pressed to find any obvious flaws. Double Exposure is the sort of album that grows on you, and truthfully, I’ve had a hard time listening to anything else since I laid my hands on a copy. It’s the sort of album where each song bridges naturally into the next, yet there are tracks like “Rainbow Trout” and “Tetro” that are nothing less than unassuming masterstrokes. But the most dazzling moment comes when the layered echoes of the instrumental “Kes” move swiftly and elegantly into “Double Exposure”. Modest and absolutely stunning.
After such a strong debut, it’s hard to imagine where Kivel could possibly go from here. However, this is also an album that might not become adequately appreciated for some time. Hopefully, the lack of exposure won’t sway him too far off the beaten track, since with his debut, Kivel has created a timeless piece of music of astonishing musical proficiency. I urge you not to let this one pass by.