War Without Witness is Matthew Robb’s third album – and it’s as good as the first two. If Robb is a new discovery – and he really should be discovered by more people – think of the sensibility of, say, Guthrie and early Dylan (political, personal, humane, tender … and utterly uncompromising) set against a sound which is based in folk or blues or country, and with a band that fills out that sound without taking away from the honesty these traditions bring from their acoustic roots. But you probably knew that simply by looking at the album cover, which feels like the love-child of Highway 61 Revisited and Nashville Skyline. Nicely done, it sets the scene well.
Uncompromising? Take ‘Numbers’, which has seven verses that conclude:
“Like sheep we’re led, we’re sinking in the red
With this toxic debt that’s hanging over our head
We’ve coveted, coerced, corrupted, cut our brother to the bone
And we treat each other as if we’ll never die alone”
Robb has the skill to make these 28 lines of social and economic analysis work as a song by putting the lyrics to something bluesy-based, with a spitting lead guitar and his usual downplayed delivery. As with much of Robb’s work, it shouldn’t be possible to combine these things so well, but he does it.
Or take the talking blues style of ‘Ode To Consequentialism’ – thirty or so lines spoken against a hypnotic rhythm which moves us from “Your arguments ain’t with me” and lists what they are really with: “broken glass memories of disused, derelict factories that reflect the disillusionment of youth”, “interminable, unrelenting bureaucrats of officialdom hurtling rusty old truck spanners into the sweet poems of the soul” and “the low hum of freak technology chips replacing the blood and guts of courage and longing”. Talking blues is hard to pull off without sounding trite – turning the song into a simultaneous dissection of the modern world bookended by the humanity of “Your argument ain’t with me” is pretty neat songwriting and delivery.
You can hear for yourself, in the link below, how Robb creates this unique combination on the title track which builds its imagery out from the opening verse: “It’s a war without witness that likes breaking jaws”. Ouch.
As well as political and uncompromising, I also referred to Robb’s ability to be personal, tender, humane. The opening track, ‘I Miss You Babe’, is dominated by acoustic guitar and moves us from “I miss you babe about as much as I can take” to “you’re the only thing I crave/just as long as I’m on this round world until I’m in my grave” by way of imagery that takes us from the physical to the life-spirit of the lover.
Try also ‘I Love The Way’ – a song which rolls along in distinctive, inimitable even, Matthew Robb style and tells us about loving “the way your heart it beats just like a bird that sings/and soars into the night sky untroubled by trivial things” to the conclusion of finding “the world’s beauty” in the lover.
There are ten tracks on War Without Witness and only so much space to write in. If you’ve heard Robb’s previous albums, add this to list, it doesn’t disappoint.
If Robb is new to you, he has a tough sound, built out from the blues/folk style and an understated delivery – but like the calmly quiet bloke you wouldn’t want to take on in a bar fight – it’s more powerful just because it’s not delivered angrily when he sings of the politics and economics of modern western society. Similarly, the personal songs are drenched in emotion because they touch a deep and self-aware place.
Musically it sounds good as well.
Artist’s website: https://matthewrobb.com
‘War Without Witness’: