Among us freaks, weirdos and misfits there’s a tremendous affection for Matt Berry. He’s our ambassador of odd in mainstream entertainment, bringing us characters such as ageing, idiosyncratic actor Stephen Toast, providing silly voice-overs for mega corporations, and sneaking progressive ideas past the guards with his surrealist humour, sartorial style and over two decades of writing and producing music.
Following his last release, 2020’s stripped-back and countryfied Phantom Birds, ninth album Blue Elephant goes back to Berry’s signature styles; 60s-influenced pop, folk-flecked jazz and psychedelia. Berry plays 18 instruments (!), sings and self-produces; percussion comes from prog maestro Craig Blundell, who contributed to Phantom Birds and is neighbours with the polymath. Fuelled by “lots of cups of tea, lots of laughs” Blue Elephant is one of the strongest things Berry’s released to date, best consumed on vinyl with a continuous, multipart track per side.
Reflecting on the cover art – also painted by Berry – it’s Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, in a blue tonic suit, lurking in a nightclub. This character might be a Berry favourite; he cropped up in Berry’s 2019 Victorian detective sitcom Year Of The Rabbit, too. So Blue Elephant heads for somewhere – Swinging London? – in Aboard, all Mellotron, piano, groovy bass, funky drum breaks and ghostly background washes. It’s Walk On The Wild Side meets Histoire De Melody Nelson that soon gives way to the upbeat Summer Sun, and Berry’s first sung parts.
Berry has said that he wanted to retreat from song-based composition and his 15 ‘movements’ deliver ideas descended from Hot Rats, Odgens’ Nut Gone Flake and Lonerism with a home production style would suit Aphrodite’s Child, Pentangle, or Jacco Gardner. Nuanced and shot through with disquiet, nostalgia and poignancy, Blue Elephant veers from Doors to The Moody Blues via some pleasingly over-the-top flanging. There’s backwards word salad on side two, spirited away by fluttering electronics, and in Safer Passage something gorgeously otherworldly, with vocoder, Farfisa and manipulated vocals. By Story Told this could easily tip over into a musical… which Berry’s done before with 2004’s AD/BC, influenced by his love of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Ending in a funky epilogue for Now Disappear (Again) Blundell and Berry’s collaboration works well. The humour of previous releases skulks in the background, but is outweighed by experimental and imaginative arrangements. Like his 2010 folk opus Badger’s Wake, it’s suite salvation.