On the day that I began my review of Agnes Manners‘ Fantasia Famish, it happened to be strangely sunny in Melbourne and I was soaking it up on my front porch. Somehow my headphones held up their agreement to be noise cancelling amid the neighbourhood dog barks and sounds of traffic drifting by. I mention my environment because album-opener “Evergreen” is sunshine in a song.
With those backing vocals and the snaps/claps and the lyrics of smiling, “Evergreen” starts like a rising sun leaving warmth on the cheeks. It continues to makes me smile, even when the lyrics darken and the song meanders and wonders. “Evergreen”‘s chorus cements the feelgood-ness, in a ‘hold my hand, let’s just be here even if things are really messy otherwise’ kind of way.
It was well after the song released as a single that the line “Everything that I have left undone comes looking for me beneath the wayward sun” poked at me, and I recognised that dual meaning link to ‘wayward son’; a phrase that makes perfect sense in an album created by a man after the death of his father. The descriptor of being ‘wayward’ also shows up in two other songs on the album.
Matthew enunciates a moment that captures a descendance into stuttering, and the accent of handclapping practically makes light of his troubles. As with Hellions‘ Rue and Opera Oblivia before it, there’s a theatrical element to the songs he creates as Agnes Manners, where you could picture them performed as a show in a theatre. I can practically see the exaggerated startled expressions of backing dancers as the narrator on stage describes the foibles of Mister Manners, with them all then proceeding to form a conga line, complete with palm tree cutouts rolled across the rear of the stage.
Humour and playfulness are a sweet buffer, and they are detectable here. But what works so captivatingly are the honest admissions that come along with them, such as believing that a “rabid dog from hell” is a suitable personification of ‘love’ in the past. The song is a celebration and a joy to be with, down to the tweeting birds and piano melody of its bridge, and the encore of the chorus – accented with a vocal peak, like one last attempt to deny all of the mess that surely awaits this loved up man once the bloom of love subsides.
It’s still love (and sun) as centrepiece as Fantasia Famish shifts into act two. “As Long As You’re Mine” is a cocktail of seriousness of hope and dreamy (yet grounded) unconditional love. It’s a love song done with honesty, and this buoyant state inspires recognition of what matters and what doesn’t.
The icing on top of this song-cake is that the real muse of the piece appears in the song, adding even more honesty. Recording in Thailand and perhaps uncertain as to when their paths would next cross, the sentiment of “I want you to soar and come back to me” from Matthew’s partner and Dream State vocalist CJ Gilpin is powerful and tender.
It’s hard for the romantic in me to pull focus toward the instrumentation when the softened, connected, and unconditionally supportive world that’s been created is so easy to sink into. The saxophone solo does a little of this though, and the gentle percussion cradles the song to be as it is. Strings reinforce the nudge of mortality and the little time we have and how it’d be wasted to spend upon hate or fixating about money. With the two voices in duet and the strings and the saxophone combined, a romantic listener is putty.. melted and maybe a teary or swooning kind of putty at that. The song is undeniably beautiful and may we each be gifted such a love.
A cacophony of voices are in the background when Matthew and his guitar begin to share a poetic stream of observation when it comes to life, music, and just being who we are. “Sincerity In Retrograde” has me reminded of previous searches for happiness, kindness, and authenticity from Hellions songs, and I appreciate that congruent continuity in the lyricism. But to be clear, this is not ‘Hellions 2.0’ and nor does it feel like it. These songs have their own unique heartbeat.
“Inner peace is a bloodied stone” strikes cleanly, and the title has me relate to the search for meaning and ironically losing it at the same time. A fixation on technology and social media can inspire contortions that give up other things that are more important, like uniqueness, identity, and beautiful quirks.
“Sincerity In Retrograde” is split into two parts, and its first part, “Pop Culture Gospel”, seems like a nod to Matthew preaching on what he sees around him. He’s not in ‘old man yells at the sky’ territory yet though, because his use of ‘we’ highlights just how much he’s part of this flawed existence as anyone else is.
The song’s melody and structure is immediately endearing, as is the entire landscape that’s created here. Simple and pared back sections swell into fuller feeling moments, making it easy to flow with. It’s something I easily picture being played on stage to a hushed crowd, reminding me of other musicians who use their songs as platforms for poetic speeches such as Bob Dylan.
The second part of the song, “Mirror Waltz”, starts after a full and grand section featuring piano and bass pares back to beautiful simplicity. I don’t exactly know who the mirror man is, but I assume it’s to do with self-expectations and possibility seen in oneself. With a delicate waltz, it’s as though we’re transported to a room where Matthew regrets not being more musically skilled, appreciating ‘the greats’ of written word and song. It’s dark in its rapid dive into feeling like a failure, collapsing into an orchestral instrumental break.
Laughing crowd noises poke at this woe, just as the final verse shakes the pessimist from his spell. The morbidity is even seen as cause for the failing. The captive entertainer with the reactive masses comes to my mind’s eye, with such a stunning downward tumbling instrumental slide to where we were earlier in the song (which seems so far away now): “Sincerity in retrograde”.
I can barely listen to “Brilliant Blue” without crying, and the recently released music video makes it even harder. It’s tough to encapsulate, seeming to begin as a hardened look at things, the choices made, the joys found, even if temporary, before talking about the experience of the loss of his father.
Matthew has shared that this is a chronological collection of his notes, and it’s a song that leaves room for feeling alongside him as well as gradually taking it all in. For me, the focus is pulled to Matthew and what is being shared, but the weeping of violins juxtaposed with more tropical kind of percussion still leaves a lump in the throat.
The key point of the song for me is when awareness of Matthew’s father sits like a patient seed of thought in the back of his mind waiting for its turn to receive attention. While incredibly stirring instrumentation crowbars at the chest, Matthew recounts watching a band and thinking of his dad, his declining condition, and his choice to ignore calls. The line “So I let it slide and now you’re gone” cuts like glass every time, whether in empathy or also because of the human nature of distraction by shiny things and the thought of “I’ll call them later” becoming a bitter pill to swallow when there’s not any kind of ‘later’ to have.
With my sun having turned to shadow, the coldness of the ending moments of “Brilliant Blue” suits perfectly; this gentle farewell and all that goes with it all sitting uncomfortably at the throat. As well as having powerfully shared a shade of love, Matthew is sharing a shade of loss, and how awkward it can be to recall the times we weren’t there or overlooked someone, even if we loved them greatly. The return to the original guitar melody feels warm and good, like the ongoing rhythm of life.
If “Harsh Light” from Rue was a person, and that person had a sibling, “Lime Light” would be it. Sounding like a demo but still poignant, the song is a one minute ‘man & his guitar’ moment. I understand it as capturing an untethered moment, where the anchor of connection is craved, and the feeling has been turned into song. It’s mesmerising in its rawness, and I can’t help but want to know more about what inspired it.
In stark contrast is “Spiced Plum And Cherry”, which has the production volume turned up to its maximum. It’s hefty theatricality with metaphor drenched lyrics, and I perceive it as being about Matthew’s role as a musician and the way it plays out, but I may absolutely be incorrect with that.
The song combines with “Sydney” after it and has the first section entitled as “Yoke”. I understand ‘yoke’ is meant as a wooden fastening that’s placed over animals heads to hold them before carts or other objects. This idea combined with descriptions of “A piano wire garlanded around my neck” and seeming to perform for captors, and how the act of doing so worsening what’s felt.
Instead of interpretation in the literal sense, I go by feel, and a ritualesque reverence is felt, as is the constant presence of dark eyes and the giving over of oneself. Ethereal moments with choral backing vocals have this feel mysterious, and the double vocals in the section about mirror man make sense in the bleak self-conversation of inducing ‘the big sleep’.
Feeling practically cursed, the song’s expansion into something that feels full and rocktastic (which may sound mocking but it isn’t at all) is satisfying. But despite the rock fullness, we don’t leave Theatrical City, courtesy of female vocals sung searchingly in French that add a further sense of tragedy. If I can trust my high school level French, she is singing in French what Matthew has sung previously.
The transition from “Spiced Plum And Cherry” into “Sydney” is well done. Mangled audio clips and breathy whispers paint confusion, and Matthew’s repetition of “The world is not thy friend” sits heavily in the gut like nausea. It’s one of the many *chef’s kiss* kind of moments on the album, especially since the song ends with beachside vomiting.
That initial confusion turns to paranoia in “Sydney”, where those many eyes watch for errors made and the desire to run from this feeling and other things seems to have led to an interstate jump. Having Trophy Eyes vocalist John Floreani add a voice of fire to this has the result of it feeling even more heartwrenching and determined. It’s important flow; adding to the idea of the song before it, where so much was given and the result was feeling stuck or burdened with an expectation.
The inclusion of “If all we have is each other” in “Sydney” as well as in “As Long As You’re Mine” is another twinkling gem on Fantasia Famish, and the lonely beach and its purge makes for a solid full stop of this particular act on the album.
As another song that tears me up, “The Young Man And The Seed” speaks like fatherly advice, set at first with just Matthew and guitar. It should be mentioned that his voice shines on this album, seeming to have progressed significantly since Rue.
At times inspiring and at others chiding with thunderous reverberations, it’s the forward run and skyward view and impactful beat of “Money will regenerate..” that is felt most meaningfully for me on “The Young Man And The Seed”, as well as the gentle adoration that ripples through these words. Advice to ‘study the greats’ exists here, as does the importance of kindness. Instrumentally and vocally/lyrically, the song is a cup-filling, heart-swelling connection between father and son. It’s the kind of song that should be featured in a movie.
“My dear young man, you could have the world in the palm of your hand”
When we shot the photos for the cover of Permanent Swim, I believe it was the lyrics to “Forest Swing” that Matthew had in front of him on the table. He’d said that he and CJ had written the song together as well as sung it together. The fact that the song (which comes with spoken vocals at first) explores ‘faux-masculinity’ and the feminine archetypal energy of receiving makes for another meaningful feature with CJ.
With a punchy circular riff and stages set for open expression at the verses, the song hits celebratory connection at its chorus, with delectable and intriguing rhythms. Both Matthew and CJ have their ‘turns’ alone and together, and, having me tear up again, it peaks at its chorus; where softening and settling and connecting are beautifully demonstrated by the intertwining of voices, and complimented by shining instrumentation of gritty riffs and chimes. An openness leaves a moment for that settling ahead of an emphatic ending, owning the male and female energies of each of us. It’s just stunning.
Coming across like being lost in thought amid the noise of conversation in a crowd, “Worship” is fucking lovely. It’s a pleasure to don the rosy glasses and float amongst the clouds, and I consider the song a favourite for that reason.
Despite its floaty nature and endearing piano melodies, the song’s sentiment is an important one. The question of “Are we entertained or circling the drain?” has me think of things like The Bachelor, with a set full of beautiful people, propped up as heroes or villains. I watch it religiously at the same time I’m grossed out by it, and I feel like the art of entertainment has veered into uncomfortable territory frequently. Perhaps that’s what Matthew is speaking about too.
“Worship” and its feelgood sound but concerned lyrics is perfectly fitting to when something perceived as beautiful can actually be a puppetry of our reactions. Toward the end of Fantasia Famish‘s tracklisting, the song seems like unease that’s been polished and held up with twinkling lights. It seemed like a question of ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ with each stab of the piano keys and whisper of strings. The synthy pulses act like ribbons of thought to ride upon, and it’s satisfying with its finality with return to the weight of “The world is not thy friend” in its eerie heaviness. The drums peek through though, and we have one more chorus without the eeriness.
Yet another that inspires tears in me, “The Old Man And The Sea” is about Matthew’s father, borrowing its title from the Ernest Hemingway classic (which *squints* may be perched beside Matthew on the album cover photo?). It twins with “The Young Man and The Seed”, sharing some important lyrics, and seeming like two differing points on the same thread of the mortal coil.
The song inspires a holding of breath at moments, where in silence Matthew sings “He can’t be dead, can he?”. Steadily but heavily, the song progresses, with verses feeling like picking up cuboid pieces of life and inspecting them; the advice to medicate, faith and meaning, the approach to self-medicate, the selfie obsessed world.
A key change and uncurling recognitions of Matthew’s father’s life experiences and his own voids and hurts come, feeling even more ache than the ‘simplicity’ of loss that was already there. It may just be me but the rolling waves of the chorus feel like “What happened to you?” on a loop. A continual question in trying to understand him.
The sombre end is wordlessly beautiful, with the father and son bond remaining, enduring all. A friend, Frank, is heard sharing a memory of Matt’s father (presumably at his funeral) while the song’s melody is played gently. It seems clear to me that this album is a tribute to Matthew’s dad as much as it is a capture of his own life and a space for creative freedom.
The album ends on a stronger, less painful note, with “Mangosteen Foothills”. More throaty of vocal tone than the songs before it, the song speaks like a pulling up of socks and straightening of sheets and an exhale ahead of future plans and actions. And yet, it’s not intended in the name of perfection or to strut or brag, it’s in the name of kindness without recognition or thanks.
The metaphor of “Sweet thistles passing over my skin” relating to years passing has me think about the painful times that have been endured having an eventual positive impact, as cliched as that can sound. The song has a grounded and whole quality to it, feeling full and determined.
The song is so rich in metaphor and instrumentally comes across like a jam session that it’s a pleasure just to sit with it and let it be a sweet dessert to the songs before it. What is palpable to me is the determination as well as the final moment; where Matt’s friend opines about falling back in love with your family and friends and recognising what you have. His enthusiasm and Matt’s joyful agreement dots a shining full stop onto the end of Fantasia Famish.
So, how on earth do I sum this up? My mind casts back to reviewing Rue and how (though it was an incredible album) it felt somehow incomplete or held back. I feel that that may have been due to Matthew outgrowing the shoes he’d been wearing at that time, and that he obviously couldn’t have steered an entire band in the direction that would have personally suited him more. Here with Agnes Manners, Matthew has creative freedom, and this is felt.
I’m not entirely certain I’m doing justice to Fantasia Famish song’s melodies and their enjoyable memorability in my comments above. Even after my initial listen through of the album, I had different songs show up loudly in my head. The album feels whole, complete, and clear, while not giving too much of itself away. It captivated me with the glow of love as movingly as it did with breathtaking affirmations of an unbreakable father-son bond.
You may find, as I do, that every word of Fantasia Famish is palpable. And even when the words are dressed up in metaphor clothes and not easily seen, that the instrumentation grabs the virtual mic and speaks in a way that is all-consuming. It’s an album to be with attentively, to be felt and revered.
Kindness, connection, and meaning run through Fantasia Famish like a river. The spring of paternal guidance inspires that flow, and mistakes act like boulders of redirection. Gazing into that river provides a mirror for self-reflection, with so much laid bare that it’s both tragic and beautiful. Exquisite in its production, whether simplistic or wildly exaggerated, the album is undeniably a stunning debut.
There's nothing I'd change.
Emotionally moving and exquisitely captured in memorable pieces of music. A loss is honoured with care and honesty, as is the process of redefining 'love', and 'man'. The meaningful album keeps giving with each return.