Matt Maltese – Modern Art Gallery, Oxford

The Modern Art Gallery often sounds like a nicer gig venue than it ends up being, concerts generally relegated to its unexceptional basement. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part, but when I see that concerts are happening there I always picture them taking place to a backdrop of picturesque landscapes or provocative contemporary art. This is an entirely unfair presumption on my part, the gallery’s art being a little too valuable to have exposed freely alongside open beers and their tipsy drinkers.

In the case of Matt Maltese, though, it turns out my naïve expectations didn’t set me up for failure, as he brought along a gorgeous backdrop of his own. A large light-studded heart which was, in his words, a “joke gone too far”, serves as a frame for constantly shifting projections of artwork by Laura Nicholson. The artist themselves having performed at the Gallery in July, marking the walls in a dozen bold and vulnerable live-streamed acts, their artwork consists of grisly yet elegant monochrome drawings of people being torn apart and riddled with holes, overlaid with animated flora and fauna representing the birds and the bees with varying levels of subtlety. Though Maltese downplays this, explaining it’s there “so you don’t have to look at an emotional singer-songwriter all night”, it provides a perfect visual accompaniment to his music. The parallel with his songs is striking: an outward sheen of romance and heartbreak that we’ve seen a hundred times over, but with a core of grave, violent suffering and bold sexuality that cuts deep and startles.

Water Pageant: Lizzy McBain on the keyboards and Nick Tingay on the guitar and kick drum.

Whereas support act (and Oxford-based duo) Water Pageant feel lacking in the necessary instrumentation to bring their emotive folksy numbers to their full potential, Matt Maltese has no such problem. He plays on a single, slim keyboard, changing settings between songs but otherwise relying only on the varying intensity of his keys and his voice to render a set of beautiful songs. At no point does his performance call out for the soft drums and backing vocals of his studio versions – he somehow encapsulates each track through a careful, stripped-back delivery.

Apparent audience favourites include Maltese’s most popular – but now seldom performed – “Even If It’s a Lie”, the closest song he has to a straightforward heartbreak ballad, as well as his latest single, “Comic Life”. The latter has somewhat eerie parallels with the Hannah Ryggen exhibition two floors above the performance, dealing with the difficulty of getting on with your own life when “everything is going on outside”, the daily reel of atrocious, ominous world events intruding into any attempt to feel comforted and capable of self-care. Both Ryggen’s domestic scenes overshadowed by the likes of Hitler and Mussolini and Maltese’s anxious and agoraphobic persona bracing against nuclear and environmental apocalypse illustrate the same tension, and it’s this strangely excruciating disparity that makes them so interesting in this day and age. If Maltese’s other recent singles, with names like “No One Won the War”, “As the World Caves In”, and “Vacant in the 21st Century”, are anything to go by, it seems he is cultivating this theme, which is fantastic news as far as I’m concerned.

The gig was also special because of the unreleased tracks Matt Maltese played (four of the ten, by my count). Surprisingly, though two of them were in his usual, downbeat style – one of them literally called “Misery” – there were also a couple showing a more playful and humorous side. “Night Club” winkingly evokes slick 80s pop, while the witty “Guilty”, he explains before performing it, narrates a series of mishaps, including going skating with his mother while under the influence – all in a fabulously dry manner. All this to say that there’s certainly good reason to keep an eye out for future releases and further concerts. If you’ve given a couple of his songs a cursory listen and dismissed him as a typical or bland singer-songwriter, it’s time to reassess: Matt Maltese is no one-trick pony, and he’s quickly proving himself to be one of the most relevant and developed voices in a genre that’s needed to evolve for a while, more of a Leonard Cohen than a Sam Smith. I, for one, am happy that there’s a chance he’ll push popular ballads forward.

-- Max Bastow, December 12, 2017