I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here: Matt Elliott likes his drink ... and not in the Jim Morrison, bottle-throwin’ ‘cause-my-momma-ain’t-home kind of way. His second solo LP, the follow-up to 2003’s The Mess We Made on Merge, trades in full-blooded, empty-eyed misery. Elliott, the Briton behind Third Eye Foundation’s deranged techno and early Bristol ground-breakers Flying Saucer Attack and AMP, looks to the former Eastern Bloc for inspiration as he dishes out whisky-soaked, chromatic Slavisms that sound almost like parodies of hopelessness. In fact, Elliott sounds a bit like a Czech Edward Scissorhands, falling over himself in an expression of desperation so bleak, so otherworldly, that it’s often hard to take it as anything more than modern myth.
For someone once so enamored with jungle electronica (of all things), Drinking Songs is quite a departure. “What’s Wrong” is a perfectly tuned bit of gin-inspired bitterness. Like much of the disc, vibes, accordion and electric guitar dance like a drunkard without a partner or Don Quixote without his horse, while Elliot’s sad-clown baritone intones that “we only seem to respond in kind/ An eye for an eye only leaves us blind.” “The Kursk,” whose distant harmonies writhe and moan like pedophiles in purgatory, offers another fascinating, if not disturbing, moment.
But despite these unsettling pleasures, Drinking Songs remains frustratingly inconsistent. Too many tracks feel like mood music for the dead: The melodies are sour, the guitars chime softly, Elliott moans incomprehensibly, but nothing much comes of it except another round. Besides the hugely tedious drum ‘n’ bass track that closes the record, Drinking Songs is an exercise in slow-churning, aching nostalgia. I felt most inspired to do precisely what our friend on Elliott’s album cover seems to be doing – tossing back a spot of absinthe in some Parisian café circa 1892, daydreaming with only a cigarette and a black cat to pass the time. The arresting image, courtesy of the Russian artist Vania Zouravliov, captures Elliott’s despondency and his soft train wreck of a record perfectly. Elliott himself would do well to learn from Zouravliov. Illustrating misery’s depth succinctly and convincingly is his one true failure.