Matthew Robb is a UK singer-songwriter based in Cologne in Germany. His latest release is Spirit In The Form with nine self-composed songs. He is accompanied by James Bragg, on electric guitar and harp, and Dave Murrell on bass, with other guest musicians on individual tracks. The album has the style of early Blues and American traditional music and the three musicians combine to make a sound which is extraordinarily powerful in its simplicity.
Occasionally in life I meet someone that I really like, but I’m not sure why. This album is a bit like that. I suspect it’s because there’s an authenticity to it, a capturing of some truth about life – but I don’t know Matthew Robb, so I have no idea whether or not that’s right. But: as I listen to the album, it seems like the songs have an authenticity to the spirit of the early Blues players; this isn’t a look back, these are songs which are relevant to the modern world. After the first two or three plays of the CD, I read Robb’s website which tells you that he lived wild in the Andes and the Rockies before buying the land in Germany to build his house out of reclaimed material. Just maybe, then.
Robb also performs at spoken word festivals in Europe. The video below, the title song ‘Spirit In The Form’, gives you an idea of how much more powerful it is to hear Robb interpret his lyrics than to simply read them on the page (the CD comes with a lyric book). “There was strength in your weakness/sadness in your joy/hope in the bleakness/little girl in the boy/silence in the thunder/a void within the storm/awe behind the wonder/and spirit in the form” is OK as a piece of juxtaposition and paradox, but put the words against that spare delivery and arrangement and you have a great song reflecting on some kind of a relationship.
‘Slave Song’ intertwines old blues lines (“In my time of dyin’ “, “high water rising”) but this seems a modern slave song not a nostalgic nod to an American past. ‘Sinnerman’ is equally relevant to modern life, modern employment and the compromises people make on the edges of legality and morality. It captures the desire to end a way of life “making offers on your soul”, a desire as modern as it is historical.
And so on. The album takes us to a world which is early Blues mixed with Jacobean Tragedy, a world of “a stagnant pool of lies” in which “the devil’s on the loose” and “murder is a choice” where “it’s over the bodies lying around you raise your glasses to rejoice”. These lines are all from the challenge of ‘Where Did U Go My Friend’, but I’m reminded of scenes in The Revenger’s Tragedy. There is some hope at the end: “There’s a road that leads from your door, you’ll choose which way to go/but there’s no doubt it all comes back and you’ll reap just what you sow”. Then the band stops playing and Robb’s voice alone asks the question “Where did you go my friend”. Understated. Stark. Powerful.
Elsewhere the lyrics tell of blood on the pillow and money on the floor. But you feel the singer is looking for something else – the spirit that will bring something redeeming to the characters in the songs personally and also to the human condition. I think the sense of authenticity I have from listening to the album is because Robb really has “been around this place a thousand times before” (‘Blood on the Pillow’) and the sparse bluesy style of playing is the only one that makes sense. The album constantly has echoes of a man who is “searching for truth every step of the way” and “until then, I’m rootless but bound/but I’m doing my best to keep both feet on the ground” (‘Until Then’)
Not a comfortable album, but rather good.