About 20 odd years ago you couldn’t move without hearing the music of Aqualung, AKA Matthew Hales. After a few years of chart placements his star – and associated fame – started to fade. But this wasn’t the last we heard of Hales. He turned to songwriting and producing for the likes of Mika, Tom Chaplin, Tiësto, Kwabs, Paloma Faith, and most recently Lianne La Havas. After a seven-year break Hales has returned with a new heartrending Aqualung album ‘Dead Letters’.
‘Here And Now’ opens the album. This feels like classic Aqualung. The lyrics seem to float out of the speakers and the drift about before vanishing like smoke from an exhausted candle. The outro features intricate, but catchy guitars, that feel like a homage to Pink Floyd. Compare to the rest of the track they’re a bit out of place. It somehow works so its all good.
‘Champion Of The World’ has massive Elton John ‘Benny And The Jets’ vibe, but also sounding reminiscent to the songs that first broke Hales two decades ago. There is a soaring string section that grows and falls, as does Hales’ vocals. The chorus features the lyric “You got it / Your feet are just a bit too big for your shoes” and “you’re a soldier now”. It feels like Hales is either talking about fame – his rise to prominence and drop off – or he could be talking about his children. And this is the beauty of ‘Dead Letters’. You are never sure if his being confessional or talking about someone else entirely.
‘Fool’ starts off as a sombre piano ballad. As the song progresses strings and guitars gently explode from the speakers. These tiny maelstroms match the lyrical content of the song. “It’s been a while since I told the truth”; “You think I’m a fool / I think you’re right” and “You are the hurricane that blows me away” are wonderfully telling lyrics.
‘Dead Letters’ is the strongest album Matthew Hales has released in 20 years and feels like a fitting comeback. That isn’t to disrespect the albums between his self-titled debut and ‘Dead Letters’, but there is something special about his new offering. Maybe its that Hales hasn’t released anything since 2015, but the songs included on ‘Dead Letters’ are filled with filagree melodies. Its his vocals that are the real star of the show. There is a hushed beauty to his delivery. Half-sung, half-spoken that really catches you unaware. Hales’ voice has aged wonderfully. Gruffer than on previous releases but still capable of hitting those glorious high notes.
Overall ‘Dead Letters’ is a reflective album that deserves to be played. A lot. It might not be as flash and showy as other albums released this year. However, there is a subtle elegance to it that elevates Aqualung from his peers. If you give it a chance you might find something very special indeed.
Words: Nick Roseblade