About four years ago, young British singer/songwriter Matt Maltese came out swinging with his affecting baritone, postmodern love songs and droll social commentary, channeling the warmth and wit of John Grant, Alex Turner and Father John Misty. Maltese emerged with his debut album Bad Contestant in 2018, recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado (Weyes Blood, Whitney, Alex Cameron). The piano ballads he became known for received a facelift via retro pop keyboards, hi-fi production, strings, brass and the occasional vibrating guitar line. Bad Contestant packaged his romantic shortcomings (“I wish that I could fill his shoes / But I’m only a 7”) with apocalyptic worries (“No more prom, there’s no crows / Should have bought the electric car”) and a self-deprecating, surreal sense of humor that’s basically millennial Twitter in a nutshell (“I’m pretty good at feeling sorry for myself”). It’s hard to hear songs like “As the World Caves In” and “Greatest Comedian” and not feel immensely heartened by his headstrong pursuit of companionship despite the odds being stacked against twenty-somethings thanks to dating apps, financial instability, looming climate catastrophe and political upheaval. But Maltese doesn’t pat himself on the back or highlight this courage: He’s simply seeking connection in a world that is increasingly disconnected.
After some U.S. touring this past March, Maltese found himself “stewing in the past” and presumably reeling from a breakup, so he retreated to his bedroom studio in Elephant & Castle to largely record, produce and mix his newest album, Krystal. While classic pop plush filled the nooks and crannies of Bad Contestant, Krystal trades opulence for lo-fi minimalism—and for good reason. It’s hard to imagine these songs of woe cloaked with the same jolly, regal sheen as his debut, and these flowy bedroom pop recordings siphon more from the sultry, vibe-y R&B sounds of today than past pop glories.
Songs like “Jupiter” and “Wish You’d Ask Me” represent this stylistic shift as they reach for slinky bass lines and twinkly synth odysseys, while others such as “Tokyo” and “Human Remains” center on heavily-coated guitar reverb. The two lead tracks, “Tall Buildings” and “Rom-Com Gone Wrong,” most closely resemble his debut album with their pleasant piano strolls: Plucky, bright keyboards open the latter as Maltese’s cozy, multi-tracked vocals candidly proclaim, “No shame / I’m dead without her.” It’s a poignant, tearful song, but not without its brief pauses to grin (“Long baths, podcasts”).
Faced with heartache, his second album is a retreat inward, unsure if he’ll come out unscathed. On the title track, he sings, “I’m a mess and I’ll never love anyone else,” and it’s this kind of frozen-in-time dejection that appears on much of the album. Having seen the charming, pink-suited troubadour dance around the living room of an older couple with light-hearted charisma and Converse sneakers in the “Greatest Comedian” video, listeners will feel immediate empathy towards the likeable Maltese who now finds himself down in the dumps. The amusing golden boy whose music helped pull us out of a funk and laugh at ourselves has fallen victim to heartbreak’s bitter clutches. Although he offers fewer obvious morsels of hope here, he affirms that sulking is a necessary part of healing and most importantly, that it’s okay to not be okay.
Though social commentary is absent from Krystal, there are plenty of lines that invite genuine reflection. On “Tall Buildings,” Maltese questions whether his romantic quest is selfish (“Welcome to an island where a person / Wants a person / On a platter with eggs and ham”), and later, on “Curl Up & Die,” he admits his past infatuation was unhealthy and unsustainable (“There was a time / When I’d kill all my friends for you”). You can easily track the common stages of infatuation and devastation unfold throughout the album: a desperation to connect (“Jupiter”), the desire to be more than friends (“Wish You’d Ask Me”), temporary romantic bliss (“Intolewd”) which turns into tunnel vision (“Krystal”), and finally, the reliving of detailed, sensory memories of a past lover (“When You Wash Your Hair”).
There are far more unadulterated lovey-dovey sentiments on Krystal than witty quips about flat earthers and references to himself as a “deck chair” or “budget hotel.” This album finds himself in a place where he isn’t ready to laugh at himself just yet, opting instead to heal by just letting it all out. Whether that’s lusting for someone’s scent, holding out hope since an ex is still alive (“Tall Buildings”) or soaking in a bathtub, Maltese is trying to find the coping mechanism that works best—and he’s likely still open to suggestions. Krystal may not be as charming or musically distinctive as its predecessor, but if a breakup has left you with nothing to do but “curl up and die,” then Matt Maltese’s second album is the calming, pillow-crying record you need.