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For years, Matt Kivel has released some of the best music that unfortunately has only been heard by a select few. The Los Angeles-based Kivel is an immensely gifted songwriter, adapting a sincere, melodic style akin to Elliot Smith and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. His music, as such, intended to spur people to contemplate the future while remembering the past as oppose just simply dazzle people with sonic flair.
For his third album, Janus, Kivel could have steered towards a path that would have broaden his appeal by amplifying his sound and simplifying his lyrics. Kivel, instead, opted for the opposite, enlisting the support Scottish singer-songwriter, Alasdair Roberts, who produced and guided Kivel in what is his most ambitious and challenging album to date.
As one could expect with the involvement of Roberts, the album weaves through a breadth of folk and alt-folk approaches. Roberts’ influences are most noticeable on the intimate folk tunes, such as “Janus”, “Pyrrha”, “Prime Meridian”, “Janice”, and “Oprheus”. On each these songs and in Roberts’ fashion, Kivel’s acoustic guitar, soothing vocals, and immaculate songwriting – which often depict stories of a character’s wandering ways including Kivel himself – are the core. Everything revolves around these three things. The addition of other instruments – flute, lute, tambourine, trumpet, piano, violin – is another of Roberts’ touches. They are included, however, to augment Kivel’s work, providing an extra layer of serenity, like on “Janus”, or mysterious calm, as heard on “Janice”‘.
It is on the more expansive and fuller sounds and when Kivel goes electric, though, where Janus truly blossoms. The songs are also Kivel at his darkest and densest in his storytelling. The stirring “Violets” is both intro- and retrospective, as Kivel recalls moments during his youth. It is a stunning yet haunting track, one that leaves you with goosebumps as Kivel’s glistening guitar plays in the background while his voice aches with an inner pain.
“Jamie’s“, though, is the darkest and the album’s most memorable song. Kivel’s voice is distant, the rhythms are shallow, and Kivel’s guitar percolates deep in the background as Kivel recalls the story of a young woman opening up about her sexual orientation, how those around her react, and her own inner turmoil. It’s a song that everyone should hear for its stark instrumentation and honest songwriting.
Not to be outdone, though, “The Shining Path”, a song that is like a brilliant piece of art – chilling yet cinematically beautiful. Terrifically paced, rising and falling as we follow the protagonist – which might be Jamie – searching and finding an ending, but one that no one had hoped for.
In following Matt Kivel’s career, he’s emerged from a young man with potential to one of the indie-folk’s most underrated and unheralded singer-songwriters. Janus demonstrates the further evolution and maturation of Kivel, thanks in no small measure to Aladsair Roberts. Janus, as such, is not Kivel’s strongest work to date, but it is also one of the strongest songwriting efforts of the year so far.
Janus is out now via Driftless Recordings.
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