Aqualung’s newest release Strange and Beautiful (Columbia) conjures a haunting and serene landscape with longing and despair as your only companions. The band is centered on the English composer, writer, and all-around music phenomenon Matthew Hale. Hale started on the piano at a young age and before long had a school theme song, a symphony called “Life Cycle,” and two well-received bands to his credit. Previous albums have included 2002’s Aqualung and 2003’s Still Life.
The third offering from Hale consists of piano-driven ballads and semi-pop tunes in the vain of Chris Martin’s Coldplay and a taste of Elton John’s mellower classics. Catchy hooks like that of the title cut "Strange and Beautiful (I put a spell on you)" drive home an honest feeling and a hopeful refrain for love that doesn’t quite exist. As the album progresses, our view into the solitary, bleak images painted by Hale begin to unfold. Only momentarily does the mood lighten for “Brighter than Sunshine,” which includes the lyrics “Didn’t believe in destiny / I look up, you're standing next me / What a feeling.” While this is undoubtedly an album for those with a damaged or mended heart or those with a penchant for depressing songs, positive messages can be found around almost every corner. “If I Fall” offers “I can see clearly / See your face in the crowd / Makes me feel I’m not alone,” while “Extra Ordinary Thing” delivers “Why not believe in something? / Something has got to be better than nothing.”
For all of the heartbreak, sadness, and despair of this young English man with a piano, Matt Hale doesn’t sound clichéd, boring, or repetitive. Instead, he sounds fresh, free, and a little bit hopeful that all things can work themselves out given a bit of positive thought and a whole lot of ivory.
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