A glance at the lyric sheet for Western Teleport, the new album from Chad Matheny, aka Emperor X, reads like the dystopic rantings of a technophile making obsessive notes to himself: “Don’t think of her swimming sideways/ Don’t think of her kicking at the topsoil/ Don’t think of her fists in the facemask.” It’s stark and somewhat obscure poetry, but these are songs, and the music Matheny makes transforms his laboratory sensibility (he’s a former high school science teacher) into romantic, dystopic, technophile love songs that are scientifically proven to be hummable.
Matheny’s dual nature reminds me of Dave Eggers, whose staggering genius tempered his heartbreaking tale, and whose heartbreaking narrative tempered the staggering genius. Matheny’s art and science as well as heart and mind complete each other. A tender melodic vignette about living by a landfill and finding mysterious language tapes reminds the singer of his beloved’s human fragility; this tender observation is packaged in the forbidding title, “The Magnetic Media Storage Practices of Rural Pakistan.” This interesction of technology and tenderness plays out through the whole album: “Compressor Repair” sings of BTUs and wishes that you’d be cool. “Sincerely HG Pregerson” appears to be a desperate missive sent from the front lines of a deadly post-apocalyptic epidemic. Did I mention the melodies? In every song, the melody makes the ideas soar even if the plot is unclear without a lyric sheet.
Matheny’s technological fascination has led him to more noise-heavy recordings in the past, and he’s lost none of that here. Electronic sounds are prevalent, but these are warmed by plenty of acoustic guitar and those gorgeous melodies. Live, in various YouTube clips, you can hear Matheny unencumbered by blips and beeps, and his voice seems warmer, more open. But the man knows how to make a record and a framework; the songwriter buries master tapes of the album’s songs in locations across the country. It’s a marketing ploy both 21st century (he posts GPS coordinates to fans and tweets the results) and old-fashioned (master tape!), but finally it’s part and parcel of a basic human condition: to share and connect. The title Western Teleport sounds like an impersonal telecomm, but at heart it sums up the artist’s major theme: wishing you were here.