“Baby, will you love me?” asks Matthew E. White on his debut album, Big Inner. That’s the thing about White: He’s careful and delicate but never timid. Most of his songs resemble little model ships, painstakingly constructed and impeccably designed with an eye for even the most inconsequential detail, but instead of being stored in tight little bottles and placed on a shelf these songs are sent off to sea, driven only by the gentle breeze of White’s voice. It’s gleefully retro music that draws from far beyond the standard psychedelia and garage pop folio of the ’60s and ’70s that’s become such a common trope for young rock classicists. White’s sense of history and his startling spirituality means the album burrows deep into grand gospel, smoky Al Green soul and wide-eyed Gram Parsons country. It’s erudite and precise music that’s not afraid to be emotionally needy.
White spends most of Big Inner yearning for a transcendence that will never come. In a recent interview White described his relationship with religion, specifically his upbringing by two missionary parents in a deeply Christian family. At one point in the article he states, “I did everything. And not just like religion, or faith, or mysticism, or some shit like that, but specifically Jesus Christ and evangelical Christianity is where I’m coming from.” That type of specificity is felt in the songs, not necessarily in the quoting of chapter and verse from the Bible, but in the way White matches a haunting reverence for God with a blistering yearning for the flesh. On the death-obsessed opening track “One Of These Days” White sings, “I want to lay next to you when our glory fades,” signaling that physical desire continues long after death and even the faithful need someone to hold onto when heading into the unknown. This solemn and unsettling request takes on a luminous quality as the song’s horns swirl around White’s patient preacher voice.
To accomplish this mystery-soaked sound White has assembled a record label and studio band that goes by the name of Spacebomb and draws on the traditions of Stax and Motown, labels that had clearly identifiable house sounds and a certain aesthetic coherence. The Spacebomb band consists of White on guitar and horn arrangements, Trey Pollard on strings, Cameron Ralston on bass and Pinson Chanselle on drums, and together they conjure a style that’s simultaneously sacred and playful. White has worked as a composer on projects with Megafaun, Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten; Transcendental Youth, the upcoming Mountain Goats album, features his distinct horn arrangements. Despite these big name collaborators Big Inner is the first album for the 29-year-old artist and also the first record for his nascent label, but instead of feeling like a testing ground for a series of wild experiments, White has crafted a collection of hushed character sketches worthy of Randy Newman or Bill Callahan.
Far from the drug-addled cosmic boom of Spiritualized, the Spacebomb crew is interested in a more homegrown, sweat-stained type of catharsis. There are choral arrangements and cinematic strings on songs like the aching “Gone Away,” but they rarely reach for grandeur, suggesting a type of celestial crisis that can’t be solved through a big collective swoon. Like most religious texts, these songs always come back to questions: “Why are you living in heaven today?” or “Do you think that’s true?” Even a more easygoing track like the whiskey anthem “Hot Toddies” can make the “fire’s warm embrace” sound vaguely malevolent, even demonic. Though the album only has seven songs and most of them smack of ecclesiastical ambition, White finds room for “Steady Pace,” a piano-driven ditty that’s destined to soundtrack a very cool church BBQ.
While his insistence that we “take it easy” on songs like “Brazos” might suggest that White is ultimately a creature of easygoing nostalgia—like fellow pop archivist M. Ward who White can sound very similar to—there’s a sense of impending existential anxiety in these songs. Even as the album builds to its climatic, hand-clapped and horn-filled ending with its “Jesus Christ is our lord, Jesus Christ is our friend” refrain, it’s tough to shake the feeling that there’s something sinister lurking in the shadows cast by all the divine light. White can shrug off the devil, but he can’t cast it out.