Album Review: Matt Norman – Thoughtless

[Self-released; 2021]

Two years ago, during a vacation in New York, I found myself strolling across Coney Island. Though it was a hot and bright September afternoon, something felt just slightly off. On a day like this, the infamous promenade and boardwalk were usually brimmed with bustling, frolicking folks, but on September 11 – a day of mourning – Coney Island looked strangely dystopian. The theme park was closed and abandoned. I passed a fortune telling machine – like the one in the Tom Hanks comedy Big – that was ditched on the side of the road. ‘Where did all the people go?’, I caught myself thinking, even though it was obvious why things were relatively quiet.

Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Matt Norman asks the exact same question on “Paradise”, the only single off of his new album Thoughtless. The context is a little different, obviously: the song refers to a small California town that was wiped out in 2018 by a large forest fire that was dubbed the Camp Fire. Before moving to Brooklyn and becoming part of the DIY scene around Palberta, Norman was based in California. Already high-strung and mired in perpetual brokenness, he entertains the thought of moving back to homegrown sceneries. Checking housing prices online, he found out the cost of living hasn’t exactly decreased, despite the now catastrophic risks of living in said place.

As exuberant as the song sounds sonically – like a contemporary, dimestore Carpenters – there’s a palpable, wry sadness in the singing of Norman and collaborator Carolyn Hietter (Sweet Baby Jesus). The interplay between the horns and the bass improvisations is downright gorgeous and moving. Some artists like They Might Be Giants or Ween flirt with pastiche till it becomes an obvious pisstake, but in his own strange and unique way, Matt Norman often plays even the most cartoonish silly putty pop elements straight and genuinely. His voice has the same caramelized quality as Arthur Russell or James Taylor, the kind that filters the sorrow through its soothe. Combine that with his impulsive, virtuoso synth and brass arrangements, and you get an idiosyncratic pop vernacular that operates on its own bizarre, wonderful wavelength.

“Hot Dog Town” immediately brought me back to that puzzling day at Coney Island. The song tries to rally at some point with some sweet, high-end synth flourishes, only to be promptly interrupted by glitchy tape scratches. It’s oddly poignant, like watching an old technicolor Disney film from a damaged tape reel. As perked-up as it tries to sound through these discordant elements, for some reason the song just crushed me. Luckily, some tracks on Thoughtless are content in their sheer lightness and levity: “Pizza” is a bubbly piece of pop music that seems to come straight out of an Animal Crossing neighborhood.

Many of the album’s 23 tracks are short vignettes that strike me as zany ideas just happy being stuck in their embryonic states. Some of them are downright hilarious: “Cat Oil” strikes as a warped infomercial, as Norman explains in chopped, Max Headroom-ish speaking patterns how to take care of your cat’s fur. In some ways, these wacky, offbeat moments undermine the more pronounced, fully-formed tracks, but on a record calling itself Thoughtless, they do, admittedly, instil a blithe, audacious sentiment of ‘why the heck not?’.

You can almost picture Norman just shrugging a goofy shrug amidst the miscellany of sonic touchstones Thoughtless embraces. The music sprawls awkwardly from silky, Cole Porter jazz, lurching school band workouts, manic synth improvisations to widescreen pop splendor. Norman involves a wide array of collaborators. Lily Konigsberg – with whom he forms Lily & Horn Horse – did some additional arranging, production and vocals. The two other Palberta members, Ani Ivry-Block and Nina Ryser, have added some vocal work. (On a brief side note: it’s really inspiring to see this clique churn out fresh and inspiring records by the assembly line, and hopefully as the decade progresses, this infectious creativity will mushroom to a much larger audience.)

Whether Norman builds an entire jazz jam around the simple pet-friendly PSA (“Blackberries are Poison for Cats”) or creates a surrealistic marriage of a barbershop quartet from space and a Final Fantasy Chocobo farm theme (“Wood”), Thoughtless leans overzealously on its foolhardy, dog-chasing-its-own-tail fervor. But by juxtaposing that with minutiae of earnest soul searching, you’re compelled to chase Norman’s offbeat, joyful meanderings, even with the risk of getting dizzy yourself.