It might be a stretch to say that some bad handclaps are at the heart of Matt Pond PA’s problems, even if their joyless inclusion does steadily drag down the otherwise interesting piano scale of “Ruins,” one of the few perky spots on an otherwise dreary album. But the handling of this seemingly trivial ingredient is certainly indicative of the dull feelings that plague The Dark Leaves, where things with inherently joyful properties are stuffed perfunctorily into lifelessly compiled songs. The same treatment is given to all kinds of minor musical institutions: the slide guitar, the offhand satirical couplet, the lead vocal-parroting backing vocal. The Philadelphia band’s inclusion of these elements isn’t gratuitous or especially ill-handled, merely ineffectual and cold, leaving the album, like many of the band’s others, stuffed squarely in the middle of the pile.
In terms of lyrical perspicacity, singer-guitarist-namesake Matt Pond never goes far beyond spoon-fed fodder like “I can’t remember which movie taught me purpose/I can’t remember which movie taught me pain,” which name-checks the idea of a media-ruled culture without saying anything about it. It’s something that happens a lot here. Which is because, lyrically as well as musically, Matt Pond PA proves once again that it’s more about slightly weathered appearances than anything else.
“Starting” poses as joyous guitar pop, while “Specks,” with its banjo and lap-steel swells, hints at creaky country, but both affect a Sartrean feeling of overt bad faith, inhabiting the conceptualized idea of those styles rather than really conveying them. It’s the same way with tip-of-the-hat nods to Brooklyn, politics, and sex, all hollowly and chastely delivered. Twelve years into a career made leaden through a devotion to keeping up appearances, Matt Pond PA finds itself spinning in an ever-deepening hole, where questions of good and bad become secondary to the material’s unvarying refusal to do anything but match expectations.