The name Aqualung conjures a certain connotation in the world of popular music. It bears repeating, if only for the manic images of Ian Anderson stalking the stage. Rest assured, no flutes or progressive rock fans were harmed in the making of Matt Hales' gorgeous and melancholic follow-up to his 2005 debut, Strange & Beautiful.
The London-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has delivered yet another expertly crafted and sophisticated pop record — one sure to make his peers jealous. Memory Man is filled with everything an admirer would expect: the minor falls, the major lifts and the consoling, grandiose passion that bridges the gap between Adult Alternative format junkies, soft rock soccer moms, and reticent hipsters behind dark-rimmed glasses.
Heartfelt musings reign on Memory Man, allowing Aqualung (née Hales) to emerge as a confident and self-effacing pro. He ratchets up the sonic cinema with guitars and a more layered approach to his tranquil songwriting this time out. "Cinderella" leads off with vocal effects and guitar-anchored melodicism, whetting the appetite for the delightful first single, "Pressure Suit." "Glimmer" and a shimmering, should-be single called "Something To Believe In" offer similar pop bliss. Conversely, "Black Hole" goes for something unexpectedly upbeat and (gasp!) even a little hopeful. And then there's the "Vapour Trail," which recalls Brit-poppers Snow Patrol and Travis and could actually pass for a b-side on the latter's The Man Who album.
While Memory Man offers some growth and exploration, Hales and his band don't stray too far from what has made him a favorite: quiet, longing ballads that could serve as soundtrack for a steady, all-Sunday rain. The sweeping "Garden of Love," "The Lake," and "Broken Bones" more than fulfill that obligation. Hales has the uncanny ability to write multipurpose music and offer listeners a grand listening experience, and Memory Man delivers the goods. All of the cuts are well-executed, sturdy and hold up well through repeated listens.
Although there's no "Brighter Than Sunshine" equivalent included, one finishes this striking and elegant disc knowing that somewhere in a darkened studio, Coldplay's Chris Martin is listening, too… and scribbling like mad in a notebook.