Tattooed Troubadour

Matt Morris mixes musical forms in a skillful, measured way -- never sloppy, never cluttered, never just for effect

Egos were checked at the January ”Hope for Haiti” concert telethon, with none of the performers identified by name. It was a small gesture of humility for the superstar performers, in a time of so much nameless suffering. But what about those you couldn’t identify on your own? For instance, just who was that guy singing with Justin Timberlake?

Matt Morris
Matt Morris

Turns out it’s J.T.’s gay bff Matt Morris. You probably haven’t heard of Morris. He was in the ’90s-era ”All New Mickey Mouse Club” alongside Timberlake, JC Chasez, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling. All bold names except Morris, whose father is former country-pop/Broadway star Gary Morris. While his co-stars all flocked to Hollywood to successfully pursue teen dreams, he retreated to Denver, where he lives with his husband, Sean.

Morris has co-written songs for Timberlake and Aguilera, among others, but he has stayed in the shadows, the Mouseketeer that got away – until now. And not just because his knockout rendition of Leonard Cohen’s beautifully sad, thoroughly secular hymn ”Hallelujah” is the highlight of the all-star Haiti benefit concert recording. The tattooed troubadour deserves worldwide acclaim particularly for his masterful, moving new debut album, When Everything Breaks Open.

When Everything Breaks Open is full of rich instrumentation and sumptuous vocals, including backing support from Timberlake as well as Patty Griffin and Edie Brickell. Released on Timberlake’s Tennman Records, and co-produced by Timberlake and Charlie Sexton, the set is as stormy – and as captivating – as they come. Morris comes across like a less-showy Rufus Wainwright – or a blues-ier Timberlake. The album even features Morris’s own ”Hallelujah”-esque hymn, ”Let It Go,” with a mournful piano melody and serenading strings from a string quartet.

”Let It Go” is a palette cleanser of sorts after the powerful, barbed guitar-rocker ”The Un-American,” a sarcastic rejoinder to conservatives who practice exclusion and fear, and preach the value of money and matter over mind.

Even more than Timberlake before him, Morris isn’t content to stick to one genre, much less one style, one rhythm, even one melody in any one song. You can tell he grew up around music and musicians of all stripes — he’s well-versed in the art. He mixes and merges in a skillful, measured way – never sloppy, never cluttered, never just for effect.

Many of the songs simmer and stew, others boil, even burn, and only a few are cool and tender. That said, one sweet song, the Jason Mraz-style reggae-pop tune ”Love,” was apparently inspired by his husband, and it should be noted that Sean Morris co-wrote a couple songs here. One of these, ”Live Forever,” is a slice of pop bliss from which the set draws its title.

”I’m telling you, with sincerity,” Morris sings on the dramatic conscience-raiser ”Eternity,” ”that what you do, and what you be, is gonna follow you like it follow me, and be with you for eternity.” The official album closer lasts just shy of a whopping eight minutes long. Morris gives the music a chance to really open up, and the message to really sink in. He floats his voice to his upper register toward the end, and the music – acoustic and electric guitar, violin, cello, bass, piano and drums – follows his lead, responding to his cries.

When Everything Breaks Open
Tennman Records

”Eternity” comes after another song Morris allows to stew, this time for just six minutes, the sweet but pining ballad ”Someone To Love You.” The song begins and ends tenderly, but there’s tension in between, as the timpani and bass echo Morris’s indirect plea for love. ”You need someone to love you…to hold you tonight,” he sings in his normal register, before gently flying into falsetto territory to add, ”It doesn’t have to be me.” He lingers over each syllable in the phrase and then repeats the process all over again in a stunning, intentional disconnect between what he’s saying and what he really means. But with music this good, this exquisite, it just has to be him, no question.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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