A lot of the material around New York’s The Ballet has compared them to Stephin Merritt, and it’s quite a pertinent comparison in a number of ways. Much of Merritt’s music has centred around feelings of loneliness and personal darkness, feelings exacerbated by being an openly gay man in an unaccepting society, and that’s something to which numerous parallels can be drawn with The Ballet. The duo’s work has often conflated broader neuroses with songwriter Greg Goldberg’s examination of his own sexuality, and paired with a brand of lo-fi yet quaint indie-pop, it’s found them rise to prominence in a number of indie circles over the past few years. Theirs is the sort of small-scale, homegrown music that’s never going to produce enormous unit-shifters, but by embracing that, The Ballet have become the sort of reliable, approachable yet pertinent little indie-pop act that it’s always good to have around.
But that can also be a rather key sign of an act that knows their audience and have their output zeroed in to appeal to the specific crowd, and Matchy Matchy certainly feels like that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and when viewed as something more personal and deliberately insular, the appeal of this album becomes much more apparent, but it also leads to an album that can feel a bit too underweight for its own good.
It’s almost exclusively a case of the execution as well, a fact that’s doubly frustrating when a lot of it feels like The Ballet’s conscious decisions. Your Mine might be welcome in its move towards scuzzy indie-rock, but it’s really the only instance of it, and placing it as the final track on the album does highlight it as something of an afterthought amidst a usually quiet, understated synthpop canvas. To give the duo credit, Goldberg’s aim of drawing from the twee tones and energy of both ‘60s and ‘80s pop is one that feels met here; there’s a distinct kitschiness about the bubbling tick and fizzing synths of tracks like Looking and First Time In A Gay Bar that can be pleasant in small doses, but when the majority of the album is on that same small scale, it’s tough to know what to really gravitate towards. A track like I’ve Been Wondering really only feels saved by a good bassline giving it some propulsion, and when that’s not there like on the meticulous, tiny sounds of Messing Around – as well as with the quietness and plain-spokenness of Goldberg’s vocals – it’s hard to glean much sonically from an album like this. It’s certainly well-crafted in all of its little synth flourishes and twee-pop progressions, but when it struggles to root them in something a bit more concrete or attention-grabbing, Matchy Matchy can occasionally feel as though it’s simply going through the motions.
Granted, it’s not as if this is uncommon with left-of-centre indie-pop like this, and to The Ballet’s enormous credit, they’re much better at using all of this to their advantage to put their writing at the forefront, and if there’s going to be one main selling point for Matchy Matchy, it’ll be this. It’s rare to hear an artist with the candour of Goldberg, especially when it comes to sexuality, and carrying himself with a deliberate sense of uncertainty and nervousness feels like a much more effective use of The Ballet’s ground-level presence. Especially when directed towards his distinctly queer experiences, it’s where the greatest amount of pathos shines through; there’s confusion surrounding attributing male and female stereotypes even within homosexual relationships on But I’m A Top, and uncertainty at expressing his sexuality more openly and liberally on First Time In A Gay Bar. Considering the bubblegum plasticity that so much of this album has, it’s a pleasantly personal listen, even when these experiences are framed as more universal relationship turbulence like on 20 or Cry Baby, which are delivered with the necessary ennui needed to prevent them from becoming stale or over-generalised. It’s where Matchy Matchy’s small scale works the best, and The Ballet run rather far with it.
It’s just a shame that not everything else comes together as well, but that’s a risk that needs to be taken with this brand of indie-pop. It’s never going to appeal to everyone, and while those who are much more deeply invested in this scene will undoubtedly find much more to love with this album, it’s easy to see why some will find that it struggles to stay together. Something so profoundly formed around the bedroom-pop aesthetic often can, and though The Ballet arguably do as much as they can with it, it’s ultimately easier to appreciate what this album is doing than outright love it. Still, the moments of quality definitely still offer quite a lot, and for a smaller, more thoughtful indie-pop listen, that can elevate Matchy Matchy to a decent enough level.
For fans of: The Magnetic Fields, Field Mice, Advance Base
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Matchy Matchy’ by The Ballet is released on 17th May on Fika Recordings.