Indian-born Swiss singer and songwriter Ajay Mathur released his latest contribution to the world of music earlier this year with some help from Fausto Medici (drums and percussion), Christian Winiker (guitars), and Richard Hugener (bass). Mathur, who took care of vocals, guitars, and keyboards on 9 to 3, mixes up psychedelic, Americana, alternative rock, and pop, playing with instruments both traditional to the rock scene and some that are not. And while it is clear that the entire album has been meticulously put together and that there is some clear talent and vision involved, most of its tracks rub the wrong way for a variety of reasons.
The slow, emotional, and burning “Nothing Really Matters” could have been a powerful rock anthem, the kind that is listened to with the volume on high or that is featured in a movie’s seminal moments, except for two things. For one, the vocals are often struggling to keep up with the melody, and two, the hand drum distracts rather than adds. The same can be said about “Password Love”. Similarly, the vocals don’t meld well with the synth-led “Latin Lover”, a Latin-flavoured, jazz lounge type track—although here, the hand drum fits very well in the melody. The gentle, soothing sounds of “Oh Angel”, seamlessly combining the varied sounds of a harp, a sitar, guitars, and drum and punctuated by a crystalline bell sound, are also not well offset by the vocals.
It doesn’t take long to determine that Mathur is a storyteller; similarly, it doesn’t take long to determine that he is interested in deeper topics than what fills mainstream media nowadays. This could have made for a very interesting and satisfying listen. “I Song” opens with a traditional sitar, then electronically distorted vocals kicks in, creating an interesting contrast between old and new. It is a reflection of how so many are centered on the self, a dark subject that contrasts with the almost bubbly pop flavour of the track—almost ironically so. Unfortunately, the lyrics quickly go from insightful to moralizing.
It’s the same in “All Up to Vanity”, a slinky jazz and blue-imbibed number that is a pleasure to listen to both with regards to instrumentation and vocals. The lyrics, however, come off again as admonishing rather than inspiring; one isn’t invited to reflect on the consequences of living a vain life, but rather made to feel guilty.
From country/Americana in “Sitting by Your Cradle” to ’80s rock in “Love Madness” to the light ’70s funk of “Sleepy Moments”, there is so much happening that the album as a whole doesn’t really tell a story, stifling the brilliance behind it. Nowhere is this most audible than in “My World (SOS to the Universe)”. It could have easily become an almost anthemic grunge/punk rock track. But instead it is a mishmash of sounds—country, pop, rock, ’80s alternative, grunge, punk—that become almost overwhelming.
The track builds up to include a children’s choir that sounds more unsettling instead of touching. This is all the more sad that the message it contains is such an important one. But there is hope in the mostly instrumental closing number “I Mantra”, which opens with a traditional sitar and combines a variety of different sounds and instruments as well as styles and genres in a satisfying finale.
When done well, songs about the important illnesses afflicting us today such as selfishness, self-centeredness, and materialism can inspire much needed conversations. But when pushed too much, these tracks become patronizing and moralizing. Combined with vocals ill-suited for the melodies, this makes of Mathur’s latest album a bit of a disappointment. Songs are available for streaming on SoundCloud. More information about Ajay Mathur is available on both his official website and Facebook page.