And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Shelley’s classic poem “Ozymandias” concludes with one of literature’s greatest ironies; a king who longed to be remembered for his works has only two legs and the pedestal of a dilapidated statue to show for all his bluster. Like the tyrant, the architect wants to build something that will outlive their lifetime, but time inevitably brings even spectacular monuments to dust. This is the basis for the “Theory of Ruins,” the concept that architecture should be built with an eye for how its ruins will one day look. After all, if decay is unavoidable, would the builder rather have majestic columns or jagged girders to memorialize their legacy?
Always one to pore over a stack of books in search of lyrical inspiration, Leicester singer-songwriter Matt Steady has taken that motif to heart in his highly anticipated third album, Theory of Ruins. After listening to the demo tracks he released and talking with him about the concept of “ruin value,” I was keen to explain in more detail the fascinating background of the ideas he references here. Between the literary nature of Matt’s inspiration and the entirely unique process he used to create the album, I was already anxious to get ahold of the finished product. After all, I’ve already enthused extensively about albums one and two, so I was certainly expecting more of his characteristic genre fusions and myriad arsenal of instruments. What he delivered, however, managed to surprise me even still!
A third album can be a tipping point for many artists. The Smashing Pumpkins, for instance, launched from the early successes of the garage-rock Gish and grungy Siamese Dream albums into the much more experimental Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; in so doing, they managed to top the Billboard 200 for the first and only time. I’m confident Steady has achieved a comparable leap with what is easily his most refined work. He strikes a masterful balance between the familiar and the visionary that serves as both a tribute to his earlier work and a proclamation of ever-more development in his already intimidating array of styles. In a poignant continuation of themes he’s been developing since Blood Is Thicker Than Gold and carried through into Feels Like Coming Home, Steady picks up the story of his Roamer character. Where this wanderer previously felt the lure of the open road and the conflicting longing for a family life, the Roamer has become a worn and weary veteran of the traveling life. In “Roamer’s Rest,” longtime Steady fans will be delighted to hear him resurrect and embellish the opening progression from “The Roamer” way back off his first album.
Steady accomplishes a kind of self-referential nostalgia, determined to draw us to back to ideas he’s been adding to and expanding on from the beginning. Like the Roamer himself, we may feel at one moment that we’re at rest, having decided how we feel about travel or solitude or family. Yet later on, Steady completely flips our understanding with a change of key and tone, just as new life experiences can make us question what we once believed. Not only does he manage to do this from one album to another, but even within Theory Steady is able to subvert and redirect our imaginations with some very clever musical techniques. For instance, “Old John” (a folk-style instrumental track inspired by a ruined castle) is placed strategically at the beginning of the album alongside songs like “The Simplest Test” that deal with how the narrator looks back on his decisions. As the album moves to its conclusion, “When It Comes to You” builds suspense with its driving guitar and howling ambience, dropping into the ethereal penultimate track, “Jane Grey.” It’s here that Steady revives the cheery main progression from “Old John” next to a chilling violin dirge. As a result, the ruins that seemed perhaps merely charming at first now feel so much more personal; the Roamer’s own struggle to reconcile his past has provoked us to see the remains of Old John as the architect’s legacy.
I cannot overstate how pleased I am with Theory. Relistening to it with a quality set of studio headphones, I’m torn between my admiration for Steady’s exemplary thematic development and my appreciation for the sheer quality of his sound engineering. Such is the effect of hearing a virtuoso at work; one can hardly decide which aspect is the most impressive. Suffice to say that fans of Matt Steady’s previous albums will find the third installment to be a truly satisfying extension of an old story while promising even more future expansion into new musical territory. The use of vocal effects in the final track, “Lying in the Rain,” is a move I never saw coming, just as I couldn’t have anticipated the hard rock power of “When It Comes to You.” Although Theory could make an excellent conclusion to the Roamer’s tale, nothing of the album suggests that Matt Steady is reaching the end of his road any time soon. Please visit his site, where you can listen to and download the full album!