I’m usually not drawn to the acoustic guitar. Too often, it’s the tool of choice for snobs and hucksters, the preferred instrument of people doing acoustic covers of rap songs (ya know, because it’s not real music in its original form) and dorm-room Lotharios. I’ve heard countless covers of “Wonderwall,” and every time I want to El Kabong the singer. Plenty of great songs and albums centered around the acoustic guitar exist, of course…but I don’t really get excited by them. Same goes for this sort of music in Japan – exceptions exist, but so much of it feels like a forced peace summit.
Yet here I am today, listening to solo artist May.e’s Mattiola, completely smitten by an album featuring only acoustic strums and singing. This isn’t a pleasant surprise either – I’m head-over-heels for this eight-song set, and it’s catapulted into “album of the year” contention. The adjectives pile up in my notes – gorgeous, holy, enveloping, warm, hug-like, intimate, “the shoulder for you to lean on,” gorgeous again, a bunch of words meaning “gorgeous” – to the point I’m scared I’m building this up too much. This is, after all, one woman with a guitar. Yet with only those two elements, she crafts a collection of songs that prove to be deep, emotional journeys.
It wasn’t long ago that May.e – who we identified as Meeshiieee – got on our radar with a cover of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” The rest of her SoundCloud impressed, but didn’t knock me away – I wrote like a sentence about “Kataomori,” which appears on Mattiola and is the highlight, though I’ll get to my rationale in a bit. Yet that Motown cover sucked me in, May.e’s decision to slice out the famous drumbeat opening the original in favor of a camp-fire-worthy acoustic version being both the main reason I wanted to write about it and the explanation for what makes Mattiola so jaw dropping. Her “Be My Baby” adds a ghostly atmosphere to the song, a vague emotionality that pulls the listener in, all while retaining the warmth of the original.
Drums do not appear on Mattiola. That’s vital – listen to some of May.e’s older tracks, or her newest one (not on the album), and while tracks with a beat aren’t bad, that grounding keeping-of-time subtracts something from her music. Removed, her music becomes far more fascinating. She is never complex on this album, all of the tracks built from very simple guitar strums that just keep going, becoming hypnotic as songs unfold. Tracks like “Love Beating” and “Fine Shoes” turn entrancing with the same chords played over and over, May.e’s DIY-recording methods making it sound like she’s in the same room with you.
That minimalism also leaves plenty of room for May.e’s other instrument – her voice. Her recording capabilities leave her vocals with a halo of fuzz, nothing ever coming across clearly but also nothing but fuzzed out. There is always a trace of an echo. Yet the real sonic triumph is when several tracks of her voice swirl together, adding the color to these tracks. See the multi-voiced hop of the playful “Sugar Smell,” or the lonesome spirits floating in the back of “Betsuzi,” or the glowing voices cooing on “Asunomy.” The album’s best track, the beatless “Kataomori,” peaks with several tracks of May.e’s voice streaming over one another, creating the single most joyful sound on the album. This technique blurs her words, and it’s often difficult to make out what she’s singing.
But dear goodness, when one of lyrics emerges from the noise clearly, they hit hard. “Spring is here/I think of you,” May.e sings on “Love Beating,” after some wordless howling, and the bluntness of that thought cuts through all the haze. On “Kataomori,” she sings simply “Loving you!” before twisting her voice into a gorgeous punctuation mark, the whole thing revealing vulnerability.
At times, Mattiola brings to mind a more earthly Julianna Barwick or even fellow Japanese artist She Talks Silence, who made a lonelier, darker version of this album in 2010 with Noise & Novels. Yet the best comparison is, once again, those yucks who ruined the acoustic guitar for me. They put the emphasis on the words, whether it be the slack-jawed delivery of “bitches ain’t shit” or syrupy garbage aimed at winning over sorority pledges. They are wasting the guitar. May.e realizes how futile words can be…though also realizes how powerful they can be at the right times…and on Mattiola balances every element to create an enveloping world all her own.