Matt Nathanson

Some Mad Hope

Matt Nathanson - 'Some Mad Hope'
Vanguard Records  •  Aug 14th, 2007
Retrospective
Buy it on Amazon.

Few albums sound more like growing up to me than Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope. Last year, for my 26th birthday, I wrote a blog post where I chose one defining song from every year I’ve spent on the planet. “Car Crash,” the opening track from Some Mad Hope, was my pick for 2007. For me, that song—and this record in general—marked the end of youthful innocence and the beginning of something a little more complex and a little less black and white. It’s tough to imagine a better record for that moment in life than Some Mad Hope, which effortlessly pairs pop hooks and anthemic arrangements with emotionally weighty lyrical work. What is tough to process is the fact that this record—the one that marked the start of my journey from youth to adulthood—is now 10 years in the rearview.

Some Mad Hope would prove to be Matt Nathanson’s breakthrough, but it wasn’t his first record. On the contrary, in Nathanson’s catalog, Some Mad Hope holds the status of being the sixth LP. He’d moved the needle slightly in the past. His cover of the James hit “Laid” opened American Wedding, the final film in the initial American Pie trilogy, and his fifth album, 2003’s Beneath the Fireworks (produced by future Springsteen collaborator Ron Aniello) spawned reasonably well-known tracks like “I Saw” and “Curve of the Earth.” But until this record, Nathanson tended to be known as an artist who put on a fantastic live show, but could never quite translate the energy and fun of his concerts into compelling studio records.

To be fair, it’s tough to convey what Nathanson does live on an album. Practically a court jester in a live setting, Nathanson cracks jokes during song breaks and develops a quirky, informal banter with every crowd he meets. It’s a rare talent—one captured perfectly on his 2006 live album At the Point—but one that really doesn’t do you much good in the studio. To truly make an album worthy of his potential, Nathanson had to do two things: 1) find the right sound and 2) write songs that would crawl inside people’s brains and live there.

Some Mad Hope managed to be the record where both of those things happened, but it didn’t come easy. In the years since, Nathanson has gone on record about being in a dark place when he was writing the songs that would make up his sixth album. When I spoke to him in 2015, in the lead-up to that year’s Show Me Your Fangs, he told me that, while he loves Some Mad Hope, it’s also a snapshot of a heavy time in his life. The centerpiece track, an aching almost-power-ballad called “Wedding Dress,” is a song about “coming dangerously close to divorce and the wreck of a marriage.” Nathanson has called it the song in his catalog where he was being the most honest.

The honesty may have almost broken Nathanson, but it did the opposite for his career. What makes Some Mad Hope one of the best pop singer/songwriter records of the 2000s is the tension in the lyrics. Up to this point, Nathanson had always been able to write catchy songs, but these were on another level. There was so much ache and hurt in the lyrics, songs caught between reflecting on better times and dwelling on the possibility of ending a marriage. The cold hard truth in the songs, combined with tight production work from Mark Weinberg and Marshall Altman (known nowadays as an accomplished country music producer) made for a record that could stand on its own, without live performances and comedic banter to prop it up.

For good reason, Matt’s decision to be unflinchingly honest gave him the first hit song of his career. “Come on Get Higher” went to 59 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a top 20 hit on Mainstream Top 40 radio. Breezy and intimate, “Higher” tends to get written off as a “Your Body Is a Wonderland” clone by people who never gave Nathanson a real shot. But the balance of the track—between the lovelorn, carnal bliss of the choruses and the sobering, regretful loneliness of the verses—makes it something more than meets the eye. “I miss the sound of your voice/Loudest thing in my head/And I ache to remember/All the violent, sweet, perfect words that you said” goes the second verse. Find me a pop song on the radio today with a better turn of phrase about lost love.

It was that chaotic clash—of perfect happiness and bitter heartbreak—that I latched onto when I first heard Some Mad Hope. On the surface, these are love songs. That’s why someone could hear a lyric like “In your wedding dress, to have and to hold/And even at my best, I want to let go” and think the song built around it was expressing undying devotion instead of massive, restless doubt. But most of Some Mad Hope isn’t about love in the now; it’s about love in the past. “I remember hearts that beat/I remember you and me/Tangled in hotel sheets,” go the opening lines of “Still,” a song about remembering the tender moments you spent with someone who is long gone. And in the dirge-like “Bulletproof Weeks,” it’s “What happened to bulletproof weeks in your arms?/What happened to feeling cheap radio songs?/What happened to thinking that the world was flat?/What happened to that?”

Some Mad Hope is a spectacularly human record. It’s about only recognizing the beauty of what you have when it’s gone. It’s about getting what you want and then being so unsure of yourself that you tear it down. It’s about running away because you’re scared to stand and fight. It’s about restlessness and stupid mistakes and regrets you’ll carry for the rest of your life. And in the end, it’s about dodging the bullet, recommitting, and doing the work to save something rather than let it become a faded photograph. It’s about doing what you need to do so that you don’t end up like the guy in “Bulletproof Weeks,” asking “What happened?” when you look back at the people and things that used to mean the world to you.

All those messages caught me at the perfect time. When I bought this record on a class trip around October of 2007, I was a month from 17, newly licensed to operate an automobile, and in the midst of the most restless patch of growing up. I had a lot of things going for me: I had a great group of friends and a supportive family; I was the lead in the school musical; I was doing well in my classes. But I was yearning for something more, something amorphous that I couldn’t describe or name, and certainly not something I could reach out and grab. I felt like I was on the cusp of something, but I didn’t know what it was. And at the same time, new pressures and worries were looming: feelings I had for a girl who wasn’t available; the impending cloud of college applications; my dwindling bank account, thanks to the fact that I’d started driving just as gas prices began to skyrocket; a borderline emotionally abusive director that made the aforementioned musical more of a nightmare than a dream come true. A year previous, responsibility had seemed little more than a far-off blip on the radar. Suddenly, it was here, and I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

Looking back now, those worries seem so slight and insignificant—especially compared to what Nathanson was actually singing about on this album. But therein lies the beauty of great songs: they find you and hold up mirrors to your life, completely separate from the artist’s intentions. I wasn’t going through a divorce (obviously) and I wasn’t even in a relationship, but the doubt, anxiety, and deep dissatisfaction running through the songs here resonated with me. So did the yearning sense of escape captured by anthems like “Car Crash,” “Heartbreak World,” and “Gone.” I may have been feeling empty, but I was also feeling the added freedom that growing up affords. I appreciated the humanity in those songs, tales of running away and starting over that sounded so unbridled and exciting—even if the dark side of leaving everything behind was always lurking just or song or two away. “I want to feel the car crash, ‘cause I’m dying on the inside”; “Let’s move out of Los Angeles/And drive until this summer gives/Forget the lives we used to live”; “Gone, let it wash away the best I had/Gone, and when I disappear, don’t expect me back.” These songs seemed to ask, “Can you drive fast enough to outrun your troubles?” As a teenage boy with his first car, I wanted to find out.

Of course, the implicit answer the album gives is “No.” The crashing “Detroit Waves” is a song specifically about what repeated departures and goodbyes do to a relationship. “And when you’re warm enough to share your sheets/And cold enough to make it seem like I was only there/Long enough to disappear,” Nathanson sings bitterly at the top of the second verse. The point is clear: you can’t run away without leaving something behind. In “Falling Apart,” the narrator can’t decide whether he’d rather stay and be the man his partner deserves or “break loose and run.” But “Sooner Surrender,” the album’s penultimate track, was always my favorite. The aching regret of that song is so real and so pronounced, to the point where you can almost taste the bile on the back of your tongue as the lyrics describe a late-night bar where everyone is having fun but you. You, alone with a drink and your own self-imposed loneliness. “I miss when you were everything,” the track concludes. What a gut-punch.

Eventually, Nathanson and his wife figured out a way to fix things and stay together. Me? I got over my restlessness and learned to be comfortable in my own skin. But I’ll never forget how Some Mad Hope made me feel a little less alone that fall, when I was growing up and felt like I wasn’t ready for any of it yet. There was comfort and commiseration in the sad songs and possibility in the call of the road, but the song that hit the hardest might have been the last one, where the excuses stopped and the lesson came full circle. “I kept falling over/I kept looking backward/I went broke believing/That the simple should be hard,” Nathanson sings in the first verse of “All We Are.” Later, it’s “Well it’s hard to change the way you lose/If you think you’ve never won.” Those lines were my reality check after an ocean of self-centered brooding. I was overthinking my own life, and I was missing things in the process: friendships; romance; youth as it’s supposed to be. If I could go back, I would change a lot of things about that year, but I would never trade the soundtrack.

Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.
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