Matthew E. White has fallen in and out of love. He’ll tell you about it, if you’re willing to listen. Big Inner isn’t a misnomer; White reaches deep within his psyche on his debut album and unfurls emotions, confessions, and misgivings. But this isn’t catharsis. He doesn’t mull over a shitty breakup or whine about how things didn’t go his way. White looks back with calm reconciliation, basking in nostalgic highs and examining the lows.
“Big Love” acts as the thesis track. Its galloping, road-song tempo meshes with White’s refrain: “Moving on like any other man should, moving on like any other man would.” His words are reinforced by a seven-voice choir and a swelling string section. Musically, Big Inner reflects White’s stint as the band leader of avant-garde jazz group Fight the Big Bull. He cites Randy Newman as a personal hero, an influence that bridges the songwriting here with White’s jazzy background.
If “Big Love” is White’s take on an optimistic break-up song, then “Will You Love Me” is the inverse: a beckoning gesture incited by longing. Pheromones dart to and fro as White gets seductive: “Baby, you’re magnificent/ Child, you’re intelligent/ Honey, you can pay the rent with that smile on your face.” But during the chorus, White reveals that he’s alone, trying to charm someone back into his arms. “Darkness can’t drive out darkness/ Only love can do that, only love can do that,” he yearns through his whispery baritone — a cross between Bill Callahan and Bon Iver, for one.
White beautifies tragedies. On “Gone Away”, a song penned on the night of his young cousin’s death, he pleads, “Why are you living in heaven today?” It’s bittersweet, with a minimalist arrangement that gently unspools into gospel soul —one of the many uplifting flourishes that recur throughout Big Inner.
White juggles darkness and light, but his songs always end with their bright sides facing up. Though his lyrics often deal with personal conflicts (love, death, religion), White sings like a man who knows something good will happen. And it’s not wishful thinking. He knows things will get better. You can hear it in his voice. You can hear it in his music. Big Inner is a brilliant debut, brimming with homages to pop music’s past, whether it be Motown or Randy Newman. But it’s Matthew E. White’s past, too. He lived these sounds, grew up with them, honed them as a bandleader. Now, he’s giving them to us and we’re much better for it.
Essential Tracks: “Big Love”, “Will You Love Me”