“One day I’ll know as I am known,” Matthew Perryman Jones sings in “Happy,” the opening track of his fantastic new album, The Waking Hours. The line is both a hopeful prayer and a knowing promise that tugs at the heartstrings of the song cycle: the idea of letting control go and giving ourselves over to the transformative power of love and life. It’s a scary thing, that, because it demands our presence, patience, trust, and vulnerability. And all it guarantees in return is that we will be changed… hopefully for the better, but certainly for forever.
“There is a misery in our attempt to possess something. We start forming an identity around it and then mistake it for a part of ourself,” Jones says. “To let it go would feel as if we our losing ourself, but there is an unexpected freedom in truly letting go. We must breathe out to take new air in, but often we sit with lips pursed, cheeks swollen, and purple face until we finally have to yield. Life is all in the breath, receiving and releasing.”
The narrator of “Happy” has “all that I’ve wanted, more than I need. I’ve got a girl on my arm who loves me.” The chorus, though, concludes with a question: “Why can’t I let myself be happy?” It’s a question he answers further into the set, on “Half-Hearted Love,” when he confesses that, “…the truth is I’m afraid to love what I could lose.” It’s a fear he’s not alone in suffering.
Despite — or, perhaps, because of — that fear, the grief and regret of not going all-in with love continue to haunt our storyteller. To convey the song’s “idea of moving in love with no thought of return, with the eagerness to have it, even if it completely ruins you… in the best way,” Jones turned to one of his favorite Goethe poems, “The Holy Longing,” and borrowed the tried-and-ever-true imagery of a moth being drawn to a flame. After all, you have to risk the sorrowful depths of loss in order to rise the joyful heights of love. That’s the grand bargain of life.
And that’s, ultimately, the central thesis of The Waking Hours.
The Waking Hours is about love found and love lost, love let go and love longed for — all the complexities of humans in love,” Jones explains of his fifth studio album. “The title is playing off the idea of lovers from another lifetime, but applies to the here and now, other times in our life, the different people we shed and become in a lifetime. It conveys the push-pull of an unsure love and letting the need/hunger for love override our own good sensibilities.”
Relentlessly considering life from and through every angle is classic Matthew Perryman Jones, as evidenced so clearly on his past releases, especially 2012’s Land of the Living. The Pennsylvania native is a seeker of truths who also happens to be a writer of songs, so his existential rumblings and reckonings get turned into art that is both beautiful and meaningful. Even so, that art, according to Jones, can’t — mustn’t — be a stopping point for others on their particular journey. It can only be a sign post.
“Life is not found in concepts or interesting thoughts that others have lived and whittled into words,” he muses. “We have to have our own experiences to form our own way of being and thoughts about things. And then you have another experience that shapes it all into something different. I suppose this is the process of personal evolution, adapting and adjusting to the vicissitudes of life. I have often half-lived my life in fear of its repercussions, pains, and rejections. But we do not grow in a safe bubble insulated from the very things that would transform who we are, not just what we think.”
Or, as the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once stated, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Letting go, it seems, is actually the most vital part of holding on — a point on which the two poets certainly agree.
It’s also a point on which Jones touches throughout the album, on the seductively stuttering “Careless Man” which features both Young Summer and Marilyn Monroe, on the eminently singable “Anything Goes,” on the quietly haunting “Coming Back to Me,” and, of course, on the gloriously anthemic title track. One of the remarkable things about Jones’s songs is how he pairs those deeply thoughtful, sometimes esoteric ideas with soaring, accessible melodies that help land his work in myriad film/TV placements. Whether or not listeners ever get past enjoying the hook to plumb the depths doesn’t really matter to him.
“I imagine it like meeting a person you are drawn to simply by their energy and aliveness. You simply enjoy being around them and the experience of their presence. If you stick around, you’ll learn how they think and what thoughts live within the person,” he says. “Music is like that for me. I’m drawn to a feeling and let it take me somewhere in myself. Lyrics are an afterthought.”
To create the energy and aliveness of The Waking Hours, Jones turned to producer/multi-instrumentalists Josh Kaler and Owen Biddle. Warm and fascinating sonic textures have long been part of his records, and the two “admitted Berklee Music nerds” took that tradition to the next level.
Closing the album, Jones took a left turn out of tradition and into Tom Waits’ “Take It with Me,” which was captured in the first and only take of it he did, as a way of honoring the song’s spirit. Though not known for recording cover tunes, Jones has a 20-year history with this cut, which he once played at a wedding and, subsequently, fell in love with. “Waits has this way of couching a tenderness beneath the gritty, cigarette-scarred voice,” he offers. “This song conveys whole-hearted living beautifully. I thought it would be a great way to close this record out.”
Whole-hearted living, whole-hearted loving… there’s no other way through this album or this life. It is not easy, but it is simple. And Matthew Perryman Jones shares the secret in “Carousel,” singing, “Close your eyes. Forget where you’re going. Joy can take you by surprise. Just let it in.”