Anyone who caught singer-songwriter Matt Duke at his early shows in the Philadelphia area or on Manhattan s Lower East Side a few years back would have discovered an artist whose musical vocabulary was nothing short of astonishing. His tee-shirt/jeans/baseball cap attire may have seemed reassuringly familiar, but Duke s performances immediately took listeners into uncharted territory. A self-taught guitarist, Duke s acoustic playing was often full of abrupt stops and starts, unexpected changes of direction, complex rhythms that came off more like jazz than folk or rock, challenging the limits of his acoustic instrument. His voice could be quietly confessional at first, then escalate to an impassioned wail, as startlingly intense by the end of a song as it was gently intimate at the start. In a world of heart-on-their-sleeve singer-songwriters, Duke pushed past the conventions of the genre, combining elements of jazz, folk and pop, even grunge and progressive rock, with unbridled emotion to create a sound very much his own.
Kingdom Underground, Duke s Rykodisc debut, is just as daring as those buzz-generating gigs. Duke is an ambitious songwriter, fashioning dramatic sagas about troubled souls who struggle with romance, life, death and, perhaps most of all, with themselves. His words can be intriguingly ambiguous: the house-bound couple on Opossum, for example, might be dealing with agoraphobia or maybe even the end of the world. He can also be exhilaratingly forthright, as on Walk It Off, a no-minced-words rocker about a bruising lover s spat. The unlisted title track, hidden on the disc, lends a cinematically foreboding tone to the proceedings, with a dark, electronic feel to it that recalls Trent Reznor at his most brooding. Not all of Duke s material is of a life-or-death nature, however. Rabbit is a tender, spare ballad at the heart of the album. Sex and Reruns takes a sardonic look, with a surprisingly easy-going pop feel, at the self-medicating properties of the internet and TV, whether you happen to be bored, lonely or having difficulties composing your next song.
Addressing the complicated, philosophical/spiritual subject matter he gravitated towards on Kingdom Underground, Duke jokingly decides it must be his Irish Catholic background. But then he says, Love songs I put those aside. I hear them on the radio so often. Writing about love and breakups is almost tired. The whole idea of your spiritual unrest, what you believe in and what you don t, what you re struggling with now and what you will struggle with for the rest of your life, were, for some reason, the things that were the easiest to write about. It s very rare that I d write about relationships; it s mostly how everyday, trivial, petty problems could be associated with a greater issue. That s what I get the most inspiration from. And I don t think I ll ever get tired writing about that stuff.