The Canadian alternative rock scene of the early ’90s was surprisingly varied. Our Lady Peace and Big Wreck drew inspiration from their Seattle contemporaries to forge a sort of mystical post-grunge sound. I Mother Earth had a funky, jam-band vibe. Big Sugar and Headstones melded roots rock and country. The Tea Party essentially ripped off Led Zeppelin before deciding to become a bunch of world music-loving prog-rockers.
Meanwhile, Matthew Good got his start in Vancouver’s folk scene. He initially performed as a solo artist before forming his eponymous band and releasing their debut full-length, Last of the Ghetto Astronauts in 1995. Matthew Good Band (MGB) didn’t sound like they were trying to ape Nirvana or Springsteen or Zep. Instead, they sounded more like their British Columbian elders, 54-40. (More on them in a bit.) MGB fit comfortably on college radio with music that could have been seamlessly played between REM and The Cure.
Last of the Ghetto Astronauts was reportedly recorded on a $5000 (CAD) budget, and it features no electric guitars; instead, acoustic guitars were run through amplifiers. This gives the album a much more laid-back feel than its successors. In particular, “She’s Got a New Disguise” is the gentlest that Good would sound with percussion until his solo career.
On this album, we can also hear Good’s trademark cynicism. Here, his expressed political views are mainly of the “wake up sheeple” and “f*ck the man” varieties, as exemplified by “Native Son.”
However, at this point in his career, the activist fire was still burning brightly, as demonstrated by the infectious, rebellious spirit of “Radio Bomb.”
Last of the Ghetto Astronauts was a moderate success, but it was the band’s second album, Underdogs that catapulted them into the mainstream Canadian consciousness. Underdogs feels more like a full-band effort than its predecessors. Good recruited Dave Genn, who played keyboards on Astronauts, to be the band’s full-time guitarist/keyboardist. He began working with producer Warne Livesey, who would go on to produce most of Good’s subsequent efforts. The band also switched to electric guitars, and right from the opening crunch of “Deep Six,” the beefier sound is evident.
On Underdogs, Good’s anti-materialism and anti-commercialism are increasingly clearly expressed. He is even more obsessed with pointing out the artificiality of media. The gorgeous ballad “Prime Time Deliverance” is actually an anti-TV diatribe, while “Apparitions” questions our attachments to our televisual pastimes. Upbeat rocker “Everything Is Automatic” deals with similar subject matter.
Underdogs was followed by 1999’s Beautiful Midnight, considered by some (myself included) to be the greatest Canadian rock album of the ’90s. From the opening cheerleader chant of “K-I-C-K-A-S-S / That’s the way you spell success!” to the haunting closing piano notes, Midnight is a musical tour de force, showcasing the band at its best. Good largely abandoned his puerile “you’re all bunch of fakes” posturing, instead taking a cleverer approach. Sexual gratification serves as a metaphor for materialism; it’s all hedonism in Good’s eyes. Take “The Future Is X-Rated” for example, which features fake phone sex in the bridge.
Good’s lyrical content also moved from shallow commentaries on commercialism to deeper and more personal concerns. “Failing the Rorschach Test” and “A Boy and His Machine Gun” tackled mental illness, with the latter questioning how society views the mentally ill, while “Load Me Up” dealt with anxiety and paranoia.
Genn’s contributions to the band also increased on this album. He provided solos on the aforementioned “Load Me Up,” as well as on one of the band’s biggest hits, “Hello Time Bomb.” (The latter is unique because it doesn’t even involve strumming; it’s just knobs being turned on effects pedals.)
MGB’s popularity only increased with Beautiful Midnight, and Good was uncomfortable with his fame, often outspokenly reacting against it. During the Underdogs era, he would often appear with a gorilla mask for publicity photos, and the band used to sell t-shirts with the slogan “I Hear Matt Good Is a Real Asshole.” Good even boycotted the Juno Awards (basically the Canadian Grammys), and continues to do so to this day.
Tensions within the band were also mounting at the time, culminating in the painful recording process of 2001’s The Audio of Being, which eventually led to the breakup of the band. Audio was considered by many to be a disappointing follow-up to Midnight, but it should be noted that Midnight was an incredibly tough act to follow; Audio is a solid record in its own right.
Audio is at times the band’s heaviest album, with “Carmelina,” “Under the Influence,” and “The Fall of Man” landing somewhere between hard rock and alt-metal. “Carmelina” even concludes with a borderline-atonal guitar solo.
However, there were also moments of beauty peppered throughout the album, like the acoustic “I, The Throw Away” and the dark ballad “Advertising on Police Cars.”
Audio marked another lyrical shift for Good. His words are often tinged with helplessness and defeat, as if to reflect the fact that his band was coming to an end. There’s a sense that he wants to get away from it all and retreat to be with his family. On “Advertising on Police Cars,” he sings, “Baby don’t get out of bed / Just lay back down your pretty head / They’re advertising on police cars / Police cars.” In opener “Man of Action” and closer “Sort of a Protest Song,” Good confesses that he’s tired of fighting. The former contains the lines “Always looked to be a man of action / ‘Cause that’s what the old man should have been / But this world, it wore him out.” The latter’s chorus is “I’m tired of walking around with my hand on my gun / I’m tired of watching them wind you up to see if you’ll run / Tonight I’m going to go out and have me some fun / I’m tired of walking around with my hand on my gun.”
As I mentioned previously, the recording of Audio was marked by tensions within the band. Exacerbating matters was pressure from the band’s label to record hit singles. In fact, the album had been completed when the label forced them to add two radio-friendly tracks. So Good penned “Anti-Pop,” which he referred to as “the worst song [he] could possibly come up with,” (it’s actually not bad) and “Truffle Pigs,” which is so loaded with curse words and anger towards his corporate overlords that no label in its right mind would ever release it as a single. In fact, it contains the lyrics, “Whatever drowns the counting machines out / That drive you to eat sh*t / Damn I’ll bring them to their knees.”
Matthew Good Band broke up in 2002. Dave Genn would go on to become 54-40’s new guitarist, and Good embarked on a solo career. Thus began a more experimental phase of his career, with a more varied sonic palette.
Good’s first solo release was 2003’s Avalanche, produced again by Warne Livesey. It incorporates electronic and symphonic influences into Good’s alt-rock sound. He had already moved away from writing tight, four-minute tracks on Audio, but here he felt freer to write sprawling, semi-epics. He in fact recorded a few tracks with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Opener “Pledge of Allegiance” features a droning synthesizer line and orchestral chimes, while “Weapon” (among other tracks) features prominent strings.
“Weapon” was actually Avalanche’s lead single, and it’s an odd choice, because it totally eschews a verse-chorus-verse structure. It begins with an ostinato acoustic guitar pattern backed by swelling, ominous strings before morphing into a hard-driving rocker. It sounds like the kind of song that would play at the edge of the earth as the sheer cliff separating you from the endless void begins to crumble. It even features the lines “Careful / You be careful / This is where the world drops off.” The song is known for its music video, which features odd cuts and subliminal messaging. (I’ve embedded it below, but it’s potato quality. It also features a radio edit of the song.)
Most of the tracks on Avalanche are of a similar mould to the aforementioned ones, but one stands out for being different, in part because it feels like an atavism to Good’s earlier, blunt anti-commercialism. The majority of the tracks on the album are about other topics, such as militarism (“Pledge of Allegiance”), the stresses of touring and performing (the title track), and even love in a stable relationship (“Song for the Girl”). But “21st Century Living” is an anti-materialist screed, dealing with similar subject matter to Good’s earlier work. However, nobody would mistake it for being an MGB track; the song’s electronics make it sound distinctly futuristic, and most of its lyrics are stream-of-consciousness spoken-word rants that barely qualify as verse.
Avalanche was a success, and so Good quickly recorded a follow-up, White Light Rock & Roll Review. It was, as you’d expect, a four-on-the-floor roots rock extravaganza. Wait, what?
Good had become disenchanted with recorded music since recording Avalanche, and he wanted to write songs that would play better live. So he looked to classic rock for inspiration and ended up recording what I’ve jokingly called the best album Neil Young never recorded.
This sort of genre-hopping would become a hallmark of the first decade of Good’s solo career. His first five solo efforts sound like they were recorded by five different bands, with Good’s voice serving as the sole point of commonality.
To hear just how drastic this genre-hopping was, take a listen to “Poor Man’s Grey.”
It doesn’t sound at all like Good’s previous work, does it? He even incorporated a little alt-country influence with the hidden track “Hopeless” and the beautiful ballad “Empty Road.”
Gotta love that sweet slide guitar. In any case, Review was warmly received, and Good proved himself to be a versatile musical chameleon. Then everything kind of went to hell.
Good had always struggled with bouts of mania and anxiety, but they were exacerbated by his separation from his first wife in early 2006. He was prescribed Ativan to deal with the stress, and he became dependent on it. After overdosing on the drug that summer, he voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric facility, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While he was in recovery, Good began writing songs for his third solo album, Hospital Music.
Hospital is a sombre affair, and it is Good’s first full-length since Astronauts not to be produced by Livesey. (It’s self-produced.) Gone is the joyous spirit of Review. Electronics seeped their way back into Good’s music, and he traded in his distortion pedal for a cleaner guitar tone, returning to some of the folk sounds of his very early career. The tunes are brooding and slow-paced, and the arrangements are sparse. Nine-and-a-half minute opener “Champions of Nothing” sets the mood with its droning synthesizer line and softly strummed acoustic guitar.
The lyrical content isn’t happy either. “Champions of Nothing” and “A Single Explosion” deal with Good’s mental health struggles, while “99% of Us Is Failure” is about a woman with terminal cancer, and “She’s in It for the Money” and “Born Losers” are about Good’s collapsing marriage.
Of course, Good didn’t entirely abandon his political bent on Hospital, as evidenced by the anti-war “The Boy Come Home” and “Black Helicopter.” Good even recorded a (very subdued) cover of Dead Kennedys’ “Moon Over Marin” for the album.
Hospital Music was probably a necessary album for Good to make so that he could exorcise his demons. He followed it up with a much less depressing record in Vancouver, his second self-produced effort. This time, he transformed his sound to give it a sort of grandiose, U2-esque feel.
It makes sense that Good would eventually turn his eyes towards his hometown. He grew up watching the decline of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and as an adult, he saw the massive gentrification and influx of foreign capital that led the western city to become the portrait of inequality that it is today. On “The Vancouver National Anthem,” accompanied by a pentatonic, Eastern-influenced guitar riff (perhaps reflective of Vancouver’s large East Asian population), Good sings of “ghettos of privilege and grief” and “needle-strewn fields,” images that are all too familiar to people who have lived in the city.
Ironically, though, the rest of the album is very rarely specifically about Vancouver. Instead, Good takes the time to be introspective, reflecting on his relationship to his hometown (e.g. “Empty’s Theme Park”) or his relationships with others (e.g. “Us Remains Impossible”). One gets the sense that Good was feeling a profound sense of dislocation during the writing process, and as a result he retreated to the comforts of his childhood seeking answers. On “On Nights Like Tonight,” he sings: “On nights like tonight when no one’s around / I put on the record, the record I found / When I was a kid and the world was a town / And Heartbreaker weren’t nothing painful / Carry me Mother Mary I’m faithless / Like Sister Theresa, canonized, faceless.”
But Good hadn’t entirely lost his political edge, as demonstrated by the aforementioned “The Vancouver National Anthem,” as well as “A Silent Army in the Trees.” Rather than being an explicitly anti-war song, it’s written from the perspective of a soldier in Afghanistan, describing his mental state as he goes out on patrols. Like he does elsewhere the album, Good uses the imagery of childhood and contrasts it with the seriousness and reality of adult situations: “Wore camouflage on Halloween / A plastic bag, an M-16 / Door to door and house to house / But ain’t nobody handing it out.” The imagery seems to suggest that adults are merely kids in grown-up bodies, play-acting at adulthood (an idea also suggested by “On Nights Like Tonight” and “Empty’s Theme Park”).
Vancouver marked a transition for Good away from explicitly political music toward personal songs with cryptic lyrics. 2011’s Lights of Endangered Species(produced again by Warne Livesey) more or less completed that transition, though elements of his political bent would subtly emerge on subsequent releases. Lights was also an immense musical departure for Good, eschewing the verse-chorus-verse format almost entirely to make his most radio-unfriendly album yet. Instead of a typical rock sound, the album is filled with lush piano, string, woodwind, and horn arrangements. “How It Goes,” a ballad about Good’s frustrations with his life in the music industry, is the perfect showcase for Good’s new style.
Elsewhere on the album, Good’s jazz influences become apparent. “Zero Orchestra” is his first (and thus far only) attempt at a big-band number:
Free from the shackles of typical song structures, Good flirted a bit with neo-prog and post-rock, somewhat like he did on Avalanche, but this time, he felt free to launch into lengthy musical interludes, sometimes going minutes without singing a word. “Shallow’s Low” and “Non Populus” are excellent examples of this.
Good didn’t stick with orchestral instrumentation for long. For 2013’s Arrows of Desire, he returned to traditional rock instrumentation and released his tightest collection of songs since 2004’s White Light Rock & Roll Review. He opted to self-produce the record, and he drew inspiration from the rock bands he listened to growing up, like The Pixies and Afghan Whigs. Lead single “Had It Coming,” with its catchy chorus, spoken verses, and upbeat tempo, served as a strong contrast to Good’s previous album.
Arrows is for the most part a traditional alt-rock album. But Good does take the time to experiment a bit, like on the industrial-tinged “Garden of Knives.”
Good stuck with traditional rock instrumentation for his most recent release, 2015’s Chaotic Neutral (produced again by Warne Livesey), but this time he opted for more of an adult alternative sound with greater emphasis on piano. This is exemplified by “Harridan,” whose lengthy outro calls to mind his work on Lights.
Neutral is a far more subdued affair than most of Good’s previous work. The music isn’t as heavy, and the lyrics aren’t as nakedly political. Now remarried and a father of two, Good is one of the elder statesmen of Canadian rock. Still, the fire inside him isn’t completely dead, and on “Army of Lions,” he exhorts the younger generation to find the fire within themselves too.
Thus, Chaotic Neutral serves as a sort of passing of the torch, placing the future of Canadian rock and its associated activism in the hands of his metaphorical children, i.e. the people whom he inspired.
That brings my look at Matthew Good’s career to a close. His music has been eclectic, challenging, sometimes frustrating, and altogether fascinating, and it played a huge role in the development of my own musical tastes. He’s working on a new album right now, and I can’t wait to hear what he has in store for listeners this time.
Matthew Good Discography
Year / Album / Essential Tracks
1995 / Last of the Ghetto Astronauts / “Symbolistic White Walls”, “She’s Got a New Disguise”, “Native Son”
1997 / Underdogs / “Everything Is Automatic”, “My Out of Style Is Coming Back”, “Prime Time Deliverance”
1999 / Beautiful Midnight / “Failing the Rorschach Test”, “Suburbia”, “Let’s Get It On”
2001 / The Audio of Being / “Advertising on Police Cars”, “Truffle Pigs”, “Sort of a Protest Song”
2003 / Avalanche / “Weapon”, “While We Were Hunting Rabbits”, “Near Fantastica”
2004 / White Light Rock & Roll Review / “Put Out Your Lights”, “Empty Road”, “Blue Skies Over Bad Lands”
2007 / Hospital Music / “Born Losers”, “Black Helicopter”, “I’m a Window”
2009 / Vancouver / “A Silent Army in the Trees”, “The Vancouver National Anthem”, “Empty’s Theme Park”
2011 / Lights of Endangered Species / “How It Goes”, “Shallow’s Low”, “Non Populus”
2013 / Arrows of Desire / “Arrows of Desire”, “Via Dolorosa”, “Garden of Knives”
2015 / Chaotic Neutral / “Harridan”, “Army of Lions”, “Los Alamos”
(Sources: Wikipedia, nearfantastica.com, my own personal experience)