ERIC MATTHEWS: The Imagination Stage [Empyrean]

At some point, you’d figure that Eric Matthews’ hermetic lifestyle (secreted away in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain range, having not played a live gig in years) and outsized ego (which has him, in his own head at least, creating a body of work equal to that of Burt Bacharach or the Bee Gees) would catch up with him. So how is it that, 14 years beyond Cardinal’s chamber-pop debut and five albums into a sporadic solo career, we find Matthews crafting some of his finest work to date? The Imagination Stage is spilling over with Matthews’ drama-rich, breathy vocals and instruments that range from stately church organ to plunkety-plunk banjo to cheesy electronic drums. The songs here cast forth a batch of character portraits as strong as any he’s ever created. Poets, fools, lovers and enemies are all richly imagined and sewn together with care in Matthews’ ornately arranged fashion. “I knew that I’d come around/I have arrived, in my mind/And I’m not going back,” he sings plaintively on the album’s circular, piano-driven title cut. Matthews may very well be living in a self-delusional universe in which he’s the nightly guest star, but it’s a world nonetheless worth visiting. []

—Corey duBrowa