Speaking to NME earlier this year, Matt Maltese described his apocalyptic love song As The World Caves In as “inspired by this idea of Donald Trump and Theresa May having a final night on Earth, clicking the red button and then enjoying ravenous lovemaking”. From this, an eye roll would be forgiven, as well as the mandatory Father John Misty comparison. If you look further, however, you will find that this particular brand of biting cultural criticism has heart – and a lot of it. Maltese’s debut is as original and charming as you are likely to hear this year.
In just under 40 minutes ‘Bad Contestant’ leaves you with a visceral sense of Maltese’s id, as well as some damn biting critiques of masculinity, love, sex, and politics. Sardonic examinations of world affairs intertwine with a gorgeously delicate romantic sentiment. A kaleidoscopic affair from beginning to end, the record explores a vast musical soundscape. The warm piano tones of Less and Less allow for a true display of Maltese’s musicianship, as well as the ample instrumentation of Guilty and Bad Contestant.
Maltese’s vocal tone is the true star of the show as, with strength and warmth, he delivers often funny and always genuine vignettes of modern life and love. ‘I’m pretty good at feeling sorry for myself’ he tells us on Bad Contestant and it is a pretty convincing sentiment. Like A Fish explores a love lost to someone better and taller through a melody evoking John Lennon’s Real Love, and it entirely gets away with it too.
It’s impossible to listen to this record without comparison – Father John Misty, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen – but these are neither apt nor appropriate. Maltese is a rarity, not only in modern music, but in wider popular culture. He alludes to the greats with real confidence, and manages to blend biting critique with fragile humility. ‘Bad Contestant’ is a record filled with the kind of poetic truths that are sometimes met with a derisive eye. Not here. Here these truths are both grating and hopeful, familiar and platonic, agonising and compassionate. In a time when cynicism reigns, Maltese is a refreshing reminder that criticism need not be without romance.