Emperor X – Oversleepers International
Another month, another belated discovery. Chad Matheny has spent much of his life in Jacksonville and played Atlanta numerous times – the usual haunts as well as “some house, some other house, some other other house” he tells me by email. But it wasn’t until Matheny relocated to Berlin and released Oversleepers International – his eighth full-length as Emperor X, at minimum – that I finally caught on.
Oversleepers remains resolutely DIY, which shouldn’t be confused for a lack of ambition. Its 11 tracks cover a wide expanse of instrumentation and musical ground, with a cunning pop sensibility its consistent thread. Frenetic opener “Wasted on the Senate Floor” barrels in like an early Pogues rabble rouser. Gradually the pace slows and when Matheny adds some gentle piano, as he does on the baroque and rather lovely “Brown Recluse,” I get a strong Mountain Goats vibe – a comparison cemented by Matheny’s reedy voice and witty, highly literate lyrics. John Darnielle’s the only other musician I can think of with the nerdy chutzpah to name a song “Schopenhauer in Berlin” and attach it to the line “…was conflicted in his hatred of Hegel.” Maybe if John Hodgman decided to enter the indie rock game…
Falling somewhere between those poles is Oversleepers’ clear highlight. “€30,000” recounts Matheny’s unpaid medical bills following a recent (and currently victorious) bout with testicular cancer. The topic sounds gloomy, but set to a tune so irrepressibly bouncy and catchy the subject matter could easily be missed absent some background reading – after all, plenty of indie smart alecks work “carcinoma” into their lyrics and use illness as a metaphor, right? If anyone remembers Kleenex Girl Wonder, that similarly precocious one man band’s spirit has found a logical successor.
The album isn’t perfect – there’s an ill-advised beat-laden collaboration and an overly long 11-minute electronic rambler – but Oversleepers International is sufficiently thrilling that the next time Matheny returns to Florida I volunteer to pick him up at the Greyhound terminal for a quick Atlanta set. Oh, did I mention that he’s legally blind and does most of his touring by public bus? Or his art project of burying cassettes of unreleased music and posting GPS clues to kick off scavenger hunts? It always helps to have a good story or two. It’s even better when they come attached to great songs.