Loser Anthems: Re-evaluating the Music of Matthew Good

Yeah, yeah Matthew Good is a real asshole. It’s a sentiment that has followed Good throughout his career, once printed on a t-shirt and recently repurposed on another t-shirt: I hear Matt Good is still a real asshole. I can’t be certain but I think this might be the thing that most people who dislike, dismiss, or actively ignore Good’s continuous stream of music “know” about him. Of course this has almost nothing to do his music, which is in desperate need of a critical re-evaluation.

He had a great run, though; from 1997’s Can-rock hit parade Underdogs and the perfect-rock-record Beautiful Midnight all the way to his most personal and honest record—the heartbreaking masterpiece Hospital Music—Good, both with and without the “Band”, never released a dud. Even the commercially disappointing and slightly bloated Audio of Being and the stripped down, live-off-the-floor White Light Rock and Roll Review are thrilling and unique in their own right. Throughout that stretch, no album was the quite the same and each spawned solid rock-radio hits. However, despite the modest commercial success that these years offered, Good never really fit in with the Can-rock crowd he was inevitably lumped in with. Part of this was and is because of his politics, a constant in his writing throughout his career; he can’t write love songs, after all. He boycotted the Juno awards up until recently, despite being consistently nominated and occasionally winning because they are, more often than not, bullshit. His music wasn’t macho enough to be lumped into the late nineties/early aughts post-grunge boom; it wasn’t ironic enough to be indie cool; too well produced to be punk. This is all bolstered by the fact that he never broke in the States, on purpose according to him.

The truth is, Matthew Good exists all alone in the Canadian rock landscape. His songs are earnest as hell, and usually quite sad. Lyrically, he covers a lot of ground but his voice always sounds pained, emotional, and above all, real. For one thing, it makes him a distinctly Vancouver artist: dowsed by the rain and maybe a little hippie-dippie. His music manages to sound better on rainy days. At its best, it’s music that can make you feel better about being sad, anxious, and frightened of the future. He invites listeners to hear the pain, frustration, and passion in his voice and to find themselves within it; it’s ok to feel as sad as he sounds.

Expressing these kinds of feelings in song is now looked at as brave and virtuous. It definitely was not ten years ago. When I was in high school, my friends and I were into bands that were, for all intents and purposes, emo. Some tended to like the heavier stuff—or screamo—much of which was coming right out of our backyard, and some of us were drawn to the sensitive singer-songwriter types. Many of those troubadours were American, no doubt, but Canada had City & Colour (too cutesy for me) and, in my mind, Matthew Good. It was around this time I noticed Canadian music media had no time for Good. I looked for reviews of White Light and Hospital Music and at best found short blurbs that were passive and uninterested. That didn’t stop me from digging deep into his discography. He was a staple in my walkman and later, my iPod. I loved his long spacey, Talk Talk informed jams like “Blue Skies Over Badlands” and “While We Were Hunting Rabbits”; I loved the totally acoustic versions of songs like “Advertising on Police Cars”, “Generation X-Wing” and “Truffle Pigs” found on disc two of his greatest hits collection, In a Coma; the downright chilly “Flight Recorder From Viking 7”, the yearning “Life Beyond a Minimum Safe Distance”; the ranting “21st Century Living”; I loved it all. Still do.

Hospital Music, more than any of his albums holds a special place in my heart. Even though it’s not really, I imagine it as a concept album. It’s an honest exploration of a life lived with depression, love, and the terrifying world that exacerbates that depression. For the most part, the songs are barebones but grand. He is not hiding behind pounding drums or distorted guitars. He lets his voice and his words do the heavy lifting, along with the string arrangements that elevate almost every song. Hospital Music is not an album of self pity but of empathy, self acceptance, and not giving up despite just about everything, including yourself, being totally fucked up. This is heard most strikingly in the album’s closing two songs, “She’s in it For The Money” and the Daniel Johnston cover “True Love Will find You In The End”. The latter is a profoundly sad look at his marriage that had ended prior to the breakdown that led to his diagnosis, but I think out of respect for himself, the album, the listener he couldn’t close the album with it. Yes, “True Love Will Find You In The End” is about as sad as songs get, but it’s also hopeful and truly beautiful. Maybe Good was just trying to be hopeful, but even that can be enough.

Hospital Music was his last great album. In a way, it was destined to be because he figured out what was causing, or at least heavily contributing to, the pain he had been exploring through his music for the previous fifteen years. I wonder, as many have, if some of the emotional weight that was so present in his music up to Hospital Music was lost once he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and got the medication and help he needed. Of course, as an empathetic person and a person who feels such gratitude for this person’s voice, I’m extremely glad he found that key. Since Hospital Music he has released five albums and each one has their moments of brilliance. After all, the darkness can be sedated but it never goes away.

His new album, Something Like A Storm is up there with Lights of Endangered Species as his best record in the post- Hospital Musicera. It captures Good on his A-game lyrically—beyond misery, this dingbat society we exist within is his most explored lyrical topic— and musically. He and is band (sounding better than ever) go for broke, offering up arena sized rock on songs like “Decades” and “Bad Guys Win”, while exploring some spacier territory on the title track and “Men at The Door”. Good is showing no sign of stopping and is gracefully entering his next phase as an artist: looking back on his life and career, taking stock and taking notes.

Canadian culture has a way of choosing our heroes for us. We tend to be force-fed the nice guy—the folksy everyman who loves his country. We also find it hard to choose who to lionize. With the exception of The Tragically Hip, we usually just wait until an artist is claimed by our southern neighbours to really stick our flag into them. Matthew Good deserves a critical reevaluation, even if he couldn’t give a shit what the crits think. He was an artist ahead of his time, often dealing with themes that were hard for the casual listener to connect with. There is a portion of people who like their artists to be real and relatable. Good appeals directly to that kind of person and continues, twenty-five or so years into his career, to sell out shows across this country without a lick of critical acclaim or press beyond the copy-and-paste press release. Being a loser is a reoccurring motif throughout Matthew Good’s catalogue and he just may be the greatest loser in Canadian music history, for better or worse, by his own hand or because of forces outside of his control. The fact remains that those of us who have been affected, comforted, or saved by his music never needed a winner or hero. We needed someone who was like us, could understand us, and empathize with us. We needed someone who cared, not someone who was cool.

Mise en Scene
Mise en Scene
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Timber Timbre