Enter, the Unknown: Hey Marseilles at the Neptune Theatre

Leave it to Hey Marseilles to celebrate an elegy.

On Saturday night the band played the Neptune Theater, marking the release of the band’s seven-inch single, “Elegy.” The performance also served as a preview of some of the material that will appear on the band’s second full-length record, due out early next year, though the sold-out crowd, almost all of which had arrived by the time relatively unknown opener Nick Jaina took the stage at 9, was happy just to sing the songs they knew.

The appeal of Hey Marseilles has hung largely on a deft interplay between the sad songs written by singer and acoustic guitarist Matt Bishop and the robust instrumental flourishes of the six musicians that share the stage with him. “Rio,” the single from the band’s 2008 debut To Travels & Trunks, is a prime example and, as usual, received the most enthusiastic response of the night from the Neptune crowd. A heartbreaking song about a fleeting love that Bishop wrote before forming the band five years ago, it is performed with such Carnivalesque aplomb that the band manages to turn one of the singer’s most wrenching lines into a boisterous sing-along. “There’s always Brazilian boys to discover!” fans shouted, as if that is a good thing.

Such moments—where the band weaves joy into sadness, inspiring its audience to clap, stomp, dance and sing along while the singer contemplates a life bereft of love—are a happy accident created by a band of talented instrumentalist colliding with a collaboration-friendly sad sack. And on Saturday night at the Neptune, they were on full display as the band played all but a couple of the songs from its debut, most receiving their usual full-throated response from an unusually large crowd of 900 people.

There was no such response for the new material, but that is to be expected. Almost none in attendance had heard any of it. Still, it was clear that the band now finds itself in a difficult transition. The new songs were all written in a different spirit of collaboration, the seven members constructing the songs together with Bishop often writing the lyrics after much of the instrumentation had been set. Choosing to not replicate the approach of its first album might be the wise move, but it isn’t the easiest. The risk for this band, expert at filling singer-songwritery voids with a chaotic gestalt of sound, is that the blending will result in blanding. And on first blush, some of the new material did sound smaller than the sum of its parts.

In a few of the new songs, the instruments that were so instrumental in the early material—viola, cello and trumpet—have been relegated to wallpaper duty, quietly setting the scene for Bishop’s romantic meanderings, sometimes swelling, but rarely bursting forth as they have before. It is a more nuanced approach for sure, but one that is so starkly different from the exclamations of To Travels & Trunks that, on Saturday night, some of the songs felt out of place.

In one instances, the band succeeded in recreating the earlier sound—during the encore, when “Café Lights,” the B-Side to “Elegy,” returned to the fanciful world of Travels. In another instance, the band was clearly moving into sonic territory both new and inspiring. It was during a song that I will call “Heart Beats,” where Colin Richey’s ricocheting drums and Philip Kobernik’s pulsing synthesizer created a spare backbone that was fittingly disquieting for Bishop to deliver a staggering tale of a fleeting lover climbing up as the song’s hero “is going down,” his will to be with his love succumbing to gravity as he falls to the city below.

Lyrically, Bishop has taken a subtle turn. His early songs generally starred a yearning hero who excelled at building fantasy worlds where he and his lover could finally realize their love, or, conversely, where his lover would finally find reason to leave him for good. The new songs are still about unattainable love at play in a similar setting with cities, mountains and seas, country sides and long winding roads often serving as metaphor. But this new world appears more harrowing. Forces of nature are pushing Bishop’s hero around, the cities are pushing him out. The enemy is no longer just the storyteller’s imagination, it is a landscape of hazards, both manmade and natural. In one of the new songs, which I will call “Endless,” Bishop sings, “I am sailing in winter. We are slowing down. We are going down. Ocean waves are to die for, blue and gray, endless.” In another song, a galloping strum befitting its escapist theme, Bishop sings “Buildings tall scream at the sky … Freeways free the way.”

The single “Elegy” is written in a similar mode, as a mournful farewell to a city that has become inhospitable. As the band plays with light touches, Bishops sings in a state of resignation, wishing to find himself “somewhere along a white mountainside,” where one can “sleep the street and sound of marching feet away.” The song does feature a choral melody of “na na na na na,” but there is little chance that the audience will ever be shouting along. Mumbling under their breathe, maybe.

Hey Marseilles is entering a very different world and if the sampling of new songs offered on Saturday is any indication, it is a much darker one. If their fans are still with the band when it eventually finds its bearings—and judging by the broad smiles on Saturday night there is no reason to believe they won’t be—they might find more than Brazilian boys to discover.

Photo by Hayley Young